Walking speed predicts longevity in older people

A cheap, safe and simple way to predict life expectancy? Look at how fast a person walks, a new study shows.
Written by Janet Fang, Contributor

How fast our senior friends and family members walk could help foretell their life expectancy.

This isn’t a huge surprise, but the study backs up with data what we sort of already figured out with common sense. “It’s a real part of the human experience to see that when someone slows down with age, they may not be doing as well as they once were,” said lead researcher Stephanie Studenski of the University of Pittsburgh. “One of the major goals of this study was to quantify this experience for practical and clinical purposes.”

Using information on 34,485 adults ages 65 or older, the researchers found that quicker walking speeds are linked to increased survival time. Speeds were tracked for several years, some for over two decades. (During the course of the study, 17,528 people died.)

They found that gait speed reflected survival at all ages in both sexes, especially after age 75. The predicted 10-year survival ranged from 19 to 87% in men and from 35 to 91% in women, depending on how fast they walked.

Those who walked at speeds of 3.3 feet per second or higher consistently demonstrated longer survival than expected for their age and sex alone.

"People have a remarkably stable preferred walking speed," Studenski notes. "Your body sort of self-selects your walking speed that best accommodates all of the systems that are needed to walk."

Sounds simple, but walking requires energy, movement control and support, and it places demands on multiple organ systems, including the heart, lungs, circulatory, nervous and musculoskeletal systems. Given this, a slowing gait may reflect both damaged systems and a high energy cost of walking.

This research could help identify older adults with a high probability of living for many more years, who may be appropriate targets for preventive interventions that require years for benefit. And if monitored over time, a decline in speed could indicate a new health problem requiring evaluation.

Scientific American writes:

So instead of a doctor assessing a patient's blood pressure, body mass index, chronic conditions, hospitalization and smoking history and use of mobility aids to estimate survival, a lab assistant could simply time the patient walking a few meters and predict just as accurately the person's likelihood of living five or 10 more years – as well as a median life expectancy.

And with the first wave of baby boomers hitting 65 this year, this easy measurement could become a powerful clinical tool that might help doctors decide on cancer screening, cardiac surgeries and other invasive treatments.

So does walking faster make you live longer? Maybe, maybe not. “We are not saying people should go out and walk faster," Studenski says, that might be unsafe. Though their research found that people whose gait speed improved over the course of a year did have an increased rate of survival.

The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association this week.

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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