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Researchers say people who walk more quickly tend to have better cognitive and overall health. Getty Images
  • Researchers say a person’s slower walking speed may be a sign of lower overall health and cognitive function.
  • Experts say they need to research whether the slowing walking gait causes a decline in health, or if health status causes slower walking speed.
  • Experts say medical professionals may be able to use walking speed as a diagnostic tool.
  • Individuals can also use this information to speed up their walking pace to improve their health.

When it comes to long-term health of the body and the brain, that old nudge Grandma used to give you may just have powerful implications: “Put a little pep in your step.”

A 40-year research study published in the journal JAMA Network Open finds that lifelong walking speed may have a direct link to overall health and cognitive function.

In the study, slower walkers were shown to have “accelerated aging” on a 19-measure scale devised by researchers.

In addition, their lungs, teeth, and immune systems tended to be in worse shape than the people who walked more quickly.

Cognitive function and deterioration was linked to slower walking as well.

The data is from a study of nearly 1,000 people who were born during a single year in Dunedin, New Zealand.

The research participants have been tested, quizzed, and measured their entire lives, mostly recently from April 2017 to April 2019 at age 45.

According to Line J.H. Rasmussen, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in the Duke University Department of Psychology & Neuroscience and the Clinical Research Centre at Copenhagen University Hospital Amager and Hvidovre in Copenhagen, Denmark, and a lead researcher on the study, what fascinated the team most was that long-term cognitive outcomes seem to connect directly to gait speed in children as young as 3 years old.

“Since childhood brain health already at the age of 3 years was associated with walking speed at midlife, it looks like the early life function of the brain could affect the long-term function of the body and thus the walking speed,” Rasmussen told Healthline.

“A most remarkable finding was that we could predict how fast they walked at midlife by a childhood assessment of their neurocognitive functions at age 3. There was a difference of 12 IQ points on average between children who grew up to be the slowest (mean gait speed 1.21 meters per second) and fastest (mean gait speed 1.75 meters per second) walkers 4 decades later. Gait speed is not only an indicator of aging, but also an indicator of lifelong brain health,” she said.

What does this mean?

For the research community and those who study and treat both the aging population and all ages of neurological patients, it’s a little bit of “we knew this” and a lot of “let’s look at this more.”

For Rasmussen and her co-researchers, the next step is to dig deeper, specifically looking at the chicken-or-the-egg aspect of all this.

Did a less healthy brain cause slower gait in life, or does having a slower gait lead to the decreased health?

“[We want to] find out if poor cognitive function causes the slow walking speed and accelerated aging,” she said.

They also want to link with other researchers to find ways to apply this knowledge to current practices.

“We would like to see whether gait could be used as a simple way to test the effect of anti-aging treatments,” she said.

Rasmussen notes there are randomized trials of preventive treatments for middle-aged people who are still well.

“Those trials could use gait as a test to see if the experimental treatments are helping,” she said.

So, what’s a person to do with this information?

“It’s not a huge surprise that your lifelong habits influence your lifelong physical function,” Michael J. Ormsbee, PhD, FACSM, FISSN, CSCS, associate professor in the department of nutrition, food, and exercise sciences and associate director of the Institute of Sports Sciences & Medicine at Florida State University, told Healthline.

“The bottom line to me is one, be active; two, start early; and three, never stop. Let’s work on using exercise as medicine and applying this to the early years, rather than later in life,” he said.

Ormsbee sees a possible immediate actionable item from this study as well.

“It is also interesting that perhaps gait speed could be used as a very easy (at-home even) test to do and gauge health,” he said.

Walking speed has long been used as a measure of health and aging in older patients, but what’s new in this study is the relative youth of these study participants and the ability to see how walking speed matches up with health measures the study has collected during their lives.

Applying this to testing, both in home and medical offices, could help pinpoint possible issues and bring in intervention sooner.

“Predicting future health would be huge for overall health and economic burden,” Ormsbee said.

While the study authors work to dig deeper and look at things such as socioeconomic background, lifestyle habits, and other issues, the general public can take easy action, Ormsbee says.

He says it’s never a bad idea to move more, and move more quickly, at any age.

“It’s never too late (or too soon) to move more,” he said.

But he also adds that people should still remember to “stop and smell the roses.”

In other words, move at a healthy pace — but remember to savor this life as well.