There are many current studies being conducted that attempt to find a link between certain behaviors and the onset of Alzheimer's disease. The hope is that by finding these associations, we can begin to better understand what causes Alzheimer's and more accurately diagnose it in its early phases. One recently concluded study conducted the Center of Excellence in Neurodegeneration of Toulouse, France hypothesized that the walking speed of seniors could be used as an early warning signal of Alzheimer's disease.
Specifically, researcher Dr. Natalia de Campo believed that slow walking speed could signal the build-up of amyloid plaque in the brain. In Alzheimer's patients, an excess of amyloid plaque occurs in the brain and is believed to be responsible for the damage that occurs there. These plaques are present in the brain even before any external symptoms of Alzheimer's are present.
Amyloid plaques are clumps of short fragments of APP, or amyloid precursor protein. APP occurs throughout the body, but one hyposthesis suggests that a fault develops in the brain that causes incomplete segments to be produced. These fragments clump together and accumulate and begin to disrupt and destroy nerve cells, which is believed to cause Alzheimer's disease.
Dr. de Campo's study began with 128 participants averaging 76-years of age. Each participant had experienced memory problems, but none had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's or dementia. After administering PET scans to each individual, nearly half of the participants were found to have amyloid plaque in the brain at a level associated with Alzheimer's disease.
Thinking and memory tests were then administered to determine the participants current cognitive abilities. Again, nearly half showed mild cognitive impairment, which is often a signal of the start of dementia.
Finally, walking speed tests were used to measure each individual's pace when walking about 13-feet. The average for this test is 3.48 feet per second. All but two of the participants finished with a walking pace within the normal range.
Even with most participants walking at close to an average pace, researchers still found an association between amyloid plaque levels in the brain and slight differences in walking speed. Those with significant amyloid plaque build-up were observed to walk up to 9-percent slower than those without such build-up. These findings were also independent of an individual's age, education level or current memory problems.
Because amyloid plaque in participants with slower walking speed's was often found in the area of the brain significantly involved with motor function, it's believed to cause damage similar to the damage that leads to memory loss and dementia in other areas of the brain.
Dr. de Campo stresses that this research found only an association between amyloid plaques and slow walking speed, and there are many other factors that can contribute to slow walking speeds in seniors. Still, the findings are significant and are likely to trigger further research.
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