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Medical Musing: Gait speed and its link to disease risk


17th December 2019

Dr Liz Barrett, RDN Medical Advisor 

RDN’s Medical Advisor, Dr Liz Barrett, discusses the link between gait speed, biological age and risk of disease identified by the Dunedin Study’s recent findings.

Whilst the association between brain health in three-year-olds and walking speed later in life is not fully understood, the benefit of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and developing fitness is emphasised once more. Many of you will have read or heard about the research being done on gait speed as a predictor of morbidity and premature mortality. Gait speed is proving to be a significant predictor of wellbeing and survival, although researchers don’t yet fully understand why. Gait speed was a topic in an October 2019 episode of the ABC Health Report and was also addressed in the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) Annual Scientific Congress in May.

Some of the most interesting findings are coming from the Dunedin longitudinal population study, which has been looking, among many other things, at gait speed for people aged 45. This study has confirmed the link between slow gait speed and premature ageing. This means that slower walkers have an older biological age compared to their chronological age. Slower walkers have a higher risk of age-related diseases including cardiovascular disease, dementia and overall mortality.

Brain imaging of the Dunedin study population showed that slower walkers have faster ageing brains as evidenced by smaller brain volumes and other aged related changes. Slower walkers also tend to have older looking faces. Walking relies on the body’s many organ systems and functions working well together and this may be why there is such a strong association between gait speed and ageing.

A further finding from the Dunedin study shows those three-year-olds with better brain health and cognition were faster walkers at the age of 45. Naturally, the question asked in the ABC Health Report was whether this finding suggested some sort of predestination to premature ageing and death. This is not known of course, but there is always considerable benefit in maintaining a healthy lifestyle and developing your fitness whether or not you performed well as a three-year-old.

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