BOSTON — Abnormal walking patterns in the elderly may be an early warning sign of senility, researchers say.
Senior citizens with an odd gait are about 3 1/2 times more likely than others to develop forms of dementia other than Alzheimer's disease, according to a study in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine.
Patients with such abnormal gaits could be given blood-pressure drugs and other medication and put on diets to prevent a stroke and ward off vascular dementia, said lead researcher Joe Verghese, an assistant neurology professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in New York.
Strokes are the main cause of vascular dementia, the second-most common form of dementia after Alzheimer's. It strikes roughly 1.5 million Americans over age 65. The researchers found that abnormal gait also was a strong predictor of some rarer forms of dementia, but not of Alzheimer's disease.
Currently, there is no reliable medical test for predicting who will develop dementia. But doctors look at such factors as whether the patient has suffered strokes or whether members of the family had dementia.
"We believe that there is a progressive brain disease taking place. At low levels, it affects gait, so abnormal walking is an early sign," Verghese said. "This study's probably one of the first studies that have used a clinical finding to predict who's going to develop vascular dementia."
The findings do not concern the many seniors whose walking problems have physical causes.
For about seven years, Verghese and colleagues followed 422 people in their 70s, 80s and 90s who did not have dementia when the study began.
Nearly one-third of the 85 who began the study with an abnormal gait developed vascular or other non-Alzheimer's dementia, compared with less than one-tenth of those with normal gaits.
Verghese said analysis of a patient's gait could be combined with an evaluation of mental sharpness and the development of better brain-imaging technology to more accurately predict who will suffer dementia.