Walking is important for health, but walking speed is also important. It turns out that slow walking speed or gait (particularly when trying to walk as fast as possible) is a problem sign already in mid-life (the 40s). Researchers found that slow walking speed is a sign of "accelerated aging", and that slow walkers exhibited such signs as reduced brain volume, cortical thinning, and reduced brain surface area.
The Duke University researchers found that a slow walking speed at midlife was associated with poorer mental functioning, and that there was an average difference of 16 IQ points between the slowest and fastest walkers. The researchers point out that this matches other studies showing that there is an association of slow walking speed of older adults and cognitive impairment and risk of dementia. The researchers viewed midlife gait speed as a summary of life-long aging, and felt that some differences were apparent already at the age of three. [This was a 5 decade long study in New Zealand of 904 persons.]
From Medical Xpress: Slower walkers have older brains and bodies at 45
The walking speed of 45-year-olds, particularly their fastest walking speed without running, can be used as a marker of their aging brains and bodies.
Slower walkers were shown to have "accelerated aging" on a 19- of measure scale devised by researchers, and their lungs, teeth and immune systems tended to be in worse shape than the people who walked faster.
Equally striking, neurocognitive testing that these individuals took as children could predict who would become the slower walkers. At age 3, their scores on IQ, understanding language, frustration tolerance, motor skills and emotional control predicted their walking speed at age 45.
"Doctors know that slow walkers in their seventies and eighties tend to die sooner than fast walkers their same age," said senior author Terrie E. Moffitt, the Nannerl O. Keohane University Professor of Psychology at Duke University, and Professor of Social Development at King's College London. "But this study covered the period from the preschool years to midlife, and found that a slow walk is a problem sign decades before old age."
The data come from a long-term study of nearly 1,000 people who were born during a single year in Dunedin, New Zealand. The 904 research participants in the current study have been tested, quizzed and measured their entire lives, mostly recently from April 2017 to April 2019 at age 45.
MRI exams during their last assessment showed the slower walkers tended to have lower total brain volume, lower mean cortical thickness, less brain surface area and higher incidence of white matter "hyperintensities," small lesions associated with small vessel disease of the brain. In short, their brains appeared somewhat older. Adding insult to injury perhaps, the slower walkers also looked older to a panel of eight screeners who assessed each participant's 'facial age' from a photograph.
Gait speed has long been used as a measure of health and aging in geriatric patients, but what's new in this study is the relative youth of these study subjects and the ability to see how walking speed matches up with health measures the study has collected during their lives.