Can Gait Speed Accelerate Ageing? Discover How to Analyse and Rehabilitate Your Walk

A woman walking in a park

Have you ever noticed that you’re slightly off-balance when running? Or perhaps the pain you’ve been living with forces you to shift your position when standing? Are you walking at the same speed you did when you were younger or have you slowed down? 

Back pain, hip pain, knee pain, ankle pain and sciatic pain can all be signs that there is a persistent movement issue in your lower body. Pain is a highly sophisticated feedback system and it can tell you a lot about the way you are moving. 

The way we walk, run, and stand can tell us a lot about the state of our muscles, bones, and even brains. And when we notice a shift in our body’s ability to do simple, balanced, painless movements, it can signify creeping instability and weakness. If you have experienced this or some stubborn pain, you may want to find the source of your imbalance and figure out what you can do about it. 

That’s the moment when many of us are introduced to the word “Gait”.

Gait refers to the movement style we use to walk or run. Healthcare professionals practice ‘gait analysis’ to assess patients movement pattern and determine a potential gait insufficiency and its root cause. 

Many studies have confirmed that gait impairment is prominent in the elderly. (1) However, recent studies have found that it can also impact younger adults too. Shockingly, issues with gait have also been connected to a myriad of health conditions that influence ageing and morbidity. But the good news is that gait can be rehabilitated.

Graphic of a person brain highlighted
What Leads To Gait Speed Impairment?

In order to walk, our brain must connect to our body and orchestrate our movement. We command our leg muscles to fire, our leg  joints to lubricate and our upper body to modify balance as our bodies move forward. The sum of these parts is known as the gait cycle. 

In a healthy gait cycle, both legs lift, step forward, and bear weight in a dynamic and symmetrical fashion.. When the gait speed starts to slow down or become impaired, this cycle starts to deteriorate. (2) Gait speed itself  is an excellent  indicator of impairment in our joints, muscles, brain or nervous system. These problems can come from:

  • Sedentary Lifestyle 
  • Hard Surfaces 
  • Physical Injuries 
  • Emotional Trauma
  • Age
  • Arthritis
  • Cardiovascular Disease
  • Neurological Disease

By far the most common causes of gait deterioration are lifestyle, immobility and unrehabilitated injuries! 

Research is increasingly uncovering that while (3) these conditions prominently impact the elderly population, they also impact an increasing number (60%) of middle-aged adults, especially in developed nations like the US.

What Leads To Gait Speed Impairment?

In order to walk, our brain must connect to our body and orchestrate our movement. We command our leg muscles to fire, our leg  joints to lubricate and our upper body to modify balance as our bodies move forward. The sum of these parts is known as the gait cycle. 

In a healthy gait cycle, both legs lift, step forward, and bear weight in a dynamic and symmetrical fashion.. When the gait speed starts to slow down or become impaired, this cycle starts to deteriorate. (2) Gait speed itself  is an excellent  indicator of impairment in our joints, muscles, brain or nervous system. These problems can come from:

  • Sedentary Lifestyle 
  • Hard Surfaces 
  • Physical Injuries 
  • Emotional Trauma
  • Age
  • Arthritis
  • Cardiovascular Disease
  • Neurological Disease

By far the most common causes of gait deterioration are lifestyle, immobility and unrehabilitated injuries! 

Research is increasingly uncovering that while (3) these conditions prominently impact the elderly population, they also impact an increasing number (60%) of middle-aged adults, especially in developed nations like the US.

Accelerate Ageing and Mortality?
Can Gait Speed Accelerate Ageing and Mortality?

A cohort study (4) published in 2019 followed 1037 participants right here at home – in Dunedin, New Zealand, across 5-decades. The study aimed to uncover how gait speed relates to the central nervous system in early life and how it can be used to identify accelerating ageing and cognitive decline. 

94% of participants were assessed every 2 to 4 years from birth until the end of the study at age 45. Researchers instructed participants to perform three different walks, which were compared to measure gait speed. Ageing was also measured via 19 biomarkers, including BMI, neurological functions, blood and cardiovascular health. 

When the study concluded, researchers observed that specific markers relevant in middle-aged adults were linked to slow gait speed. They included:

  • Physical limitation 
  • Poor balance, strength and coordination
  • Poor brain health in childhood
  • Unhealthy biomarkers 
  • Decreasing neurological functions (including memory, behavioural skills and IQ)

The study also showed that people with slow gait aged five times faster between age 26 and 45 than those with regular speed gait. 

All in all, slow gait speed was prominently associated with physical and cognitive decline, which could begin as early as age 3. And while this data may be scary, it highlights that monitoring our gait speed can be a prevalent way to uncover many health conditions in our midlife and prevent them from declining.

Can Gait Speed Accelerate Ageing and Mortality?

A cohort study (4) published in 2019 followed 1037 participants right here at home – in Dunedin, New Zealand, across 5-decades. The study aimed to uncover how gait speed relates to the central nervous system in early life and how it can be used to identify accelerating ageing and cognitive decline. 

94% of participants were assessed every 2 to 4 years from birth until the end of the study at age 45. Researchers instructed participants to perform three different walks, which were compared to measure gait speed. Ageing was also measured via 19 biomarkers, including BMI, neurological functions, blood and cardiovascular health. 

When the study concluded, researchers observed that specific markers relevant in middle-aged adults were linked to slow gait speed. They included:

  • Physical limitation 
  • Poor balance, strength and coordination
  • Poor brain health in childhood
  • Unhealthy biomarkers 
  • Decreasing neurological functions (including memory, behavioural skills and IQ)

The study also showed that people with slow gait aged five times faster between age 26 and 45 than those with regular speed gait. 

All in all, slow gait speed was prominently associated with physical and cognitive decline, which could begin as early as age 3. And while this data may be scary, it highlights that monitoring our gait speed can be a prevalent way to uncover many health conditions in our midlife and prevent them from declining.

Gait Speed Analysis, Prevention and Rehabilitation

While health metrics linked to diseases can be measured in various ways, a gait speed analysis helps detect early signs of health decline, leading to the possibility of prevention and rehabilitation. 

Healthcare professionals like us assess your gait cycle by using software speed and range of movement of the foot, leg, and pelvis during walking. (5)

Gait analysis also includes anatomical assessment of the hip flexors, abductors or quadriceps along with the overall impact and weight-bearing leg experience during walking. By breaking down your movement patterns experts are often able to pinpoint the potential root causes of a slow gait speed. And in turn the cause of today’s pains & one of the potential causes of  tomorrow’s disability and health decline. 

With all the right data on board – gait speed can be improved through physical rehabilitation and coaching.

Your gait  can tell if you are ageing too quickly, way before old age brings chronic pain and diseases. Assessing your walk (or gait speed) in your 40’s might be the chance to uncover and recalibrate symptoms that lead to physical and mental decline. 

So in addition to getting your pain checked out.  If you notice a slight unbalance when you walk, stand or go for a jog consider ‘looking under the hood’ and get your gait checked. It could pay off in the long term.

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