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Faster Walkers Have Lower Odds of Memory Problems

Walking Speed, Strength of Hand Grip May Help Predict Future Risk of Memory Loss and Stroke, Study Finds
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By Cari Nierenberg
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Feb. 15, 2012 -- How fast you can walk and the strength of your hand grip might shed light on your odds of having a stroke or memory problems as you get older, researchers report.

"These are basic office tests which can provide insight into risk of dementia and stroke," study researcher Erica C. Camargo, MD, PhD, says in a news release.

A decrease in walking speed might reveal a decline in a person's overall health, and a weaker grip can be a sign of less upper-body strength and frailty.

For the research, scientists looked at about 2,400 men and women, average age 62, who had not had a stroke or mental decline when the study began. They measured participants' hand grip strength and walking speed, and they also gave them a brain scan and memory tests.

During an 11-year follow-up period, 79 people suffered a stroke or transient ischemic attack ("mini-stroke") and 34 people developed dementia.

The study will be presented in April at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in New Orleans.

Stronger Grips, Stronger Test Scores

The risk of memory problems in men and women who had slower walking speeds was 1.5 times greater, as they got older, than quicker-paced walkers. Walking slowly was also linked with lower brain volume and not performing as well on various tests of memory, language, and decision making.

People aged 65 and older who had the strongest grip had a 42% lower risk of stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA) than those with weaker grips. But this same effect was not seen in men and women under 65.

People with stronger hand grips were found to have larger brain volume and scored better on tests asking them to find similarities among objects.

"While frailty and lower physical performance in elderly people have been associated with an increased risk of dementia, we weren't sure until now how it impacted people of [that] age," says Camargo, a neurologist at the Boston Medical Center in Boston. Reduced grip strength and walking speed might be a sign of the need for additional brain function tests.

More research is needed to understand why slower walking speeds and less hand grip strength in people happens and how it may increase the future risk for mental decline and stroke.  

This study will be presented at a medical conference. The findings should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.

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