Brain fitness programs may help frail elderly walk faster

September, 2010

Walking speed and balance may be improved in seniors through a brain training program. Research has indicated that a common pathology underlies cognitive impairment and gait and balance problems.

On the subject of the benefits of walking for seniors, it’s intriguing to note a recent pilot study that found frail seniors who walked slowly (no faster than one meter per second) benefited from a brain fitness program known as Mindfit. After eight weeks of sessions three times weekly (each session 45-60 minutes), all ten participants walked a little faster, and significantly faster while talking. Walking while talking requires considerably more concentration than normal walking. The success of this short intervention (which needs to be replicated in a larger study) offers the hope that frail elderly who may be unable to participate in physical exercise, could improve their mobility through brain fitness programs. Poor gait speed is also correlated with a higher probability of falls.

The connection between gait speed and cognitive function is an interesting one. Previous research has indicated that slow gait should alert doctors to check for cognitive impairment. One study found severe white matter lesions were more likely in those with gait and balance problems. Most recently, a longitudinal study involving over 900 older adults has found poorer global cognitive function, verbal memory, and executive function, were all predictive of greater decline in gait speed.

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Grip strength & walking speed: mortality link

On a side-note, I read of a recent review that found adults with weaker grip strength and those with slower walking speed, were more likely to die younger than those who were stronger and faster. Speed rising from a chair, and balance when standing on one leg, were likewise associated with longevity. While all that may simply reflect a common link with physical activity levels, it is intriguing to note that one of the studies used measures of grip strength when the participants were younger than 60. (see http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/sep/10/firm-grip-sign-of-longer-life for more details of this review)
In any case, the findings suggest the value of using these simple measures to identify those most in need of intervention.

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