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50+: Live Better, Longer

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Are Signs of Old Age Really Something More Serious?

Study: Shaky Hands, Trouble Walking May Be Signs of Tiny Brain Lesions
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Aug. 31, 2011 -- Shaky hands, a stooped posture, and slower walking are often written off as normal signs of aging, but they may be more than that. These symptoms may be signs of tiny blocked blood vessels in the brain.

“What we think of as normal aging may not be so normal after all,” says researcher Aron S. Buchman, MD. He is an associate professor of neurological sciences at Rush University Medical School in Chicago.

Researchers examined 1,100 older nuns and priests every year starting in 1994; the nuns’ and priests’ brains were donated to science after they died. There were tiny lesions or blocked blood vessels -- only visible via microscope -- seen in the brains of 30% of 418 people who died.

These participants were about 88 on average when they died, and none showed any signs of brain disease or stroke when living. These changes are so small that they would have been missed by available brain scans.

Those who had the hardest time walking were more likely to have multiple lesions in their brains, the study showed. Two-thirds had at least one blood vessel abnormality in their brain upon examination after death.

The new findings appear in Stroke.

Can Anything Be Done?

As part of the study, researchers observed “normal” signs of aging, including:

  • Balance
  • Posture
  • Walking speed
  • Ability to get in and out of a chair (chair test)
  • Ability to turn while walking
  • Dizziness

“As people get older, even if they don’t have diseases like stroke or Parkinson’s disease, they do slow down,” Buchman says.

So just what does this mean for people in their 80s?

High blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes are known risk factors for stroke and blood vessel disease. So someone who has abnormal muscle function or movement should be assessed for such risk factors and may want to aggressively lower these risks, Buchman tells WebMD.

“We do have medications available to treat these risk factors, and we could be more aggressive about lifestyle changes, such as increasing physical activity and losing weight,” he says. This is especially important because there are not yet any scans powerful enough to detect the tiny blocked blood vessels.

Still, this study was based on observation, so it is too early to say what effect these changes could have on the strength of people’s muscles or their ability to effectively get around.

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