Walking Speed, Oral Health, and Other Factors Indicate Accelerated Aging

Dentistry Today


The walking speed of 45-year-olds, particularly their fastest walking speed without running, can be used as a marker of their aging brains and bodies, according to a study by researchers at Duke University. Slower walkers were shown to have accelerated aging on a 19-measure scale devised by researchers, and their teeth as measured by gum health and caries-affected tooth surfaces as well as their lungs and immune systems tended to be in worse shape than the people who walked faster.

“The thing that’s really striking is that this is in 45-year-old people, not the geriatric patients who are usually assessed with such measures,” said lead researcher Line J.H. Rasmussen, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in the Duke University Department of Psychology & Neuroscience.

Also, the neurocognitive testing these individuals took as children could predict who would become the slower walkers. At age 3, their scores on IQ, understanding language, frustration tolerance, motor skills, and emotional control predicted their walking speed at age 45.

“Doctors know that slow walkers in their seventies and eighties tend to die sooner than fast walkers their same age,” said senior author Terrie E. Moffitt, PhD, MA, the Nannerl O. Keohane University Professor of Psychology and Duke University and professor of social development at King’s College London. “But this study covered the period from the preschool years to midlife and found that a slow walk is a problem sign decades before old age.” 

The data come from a long-term study of 904 people born during a single year in Dunedin, New Zealand. The subjects in the study have been tested, quizzed, and measured their entire lives, most recently from April 2017 to April 2019 at the age of 45. 

MRI exams during their last assessment showed that the slower walkers tended to have lower brain volume, lower mean cortical thickness, less brain surface area, and higher incidence of white matter “hyperintensities,” small lesions associated with small vessel disease of the brain. In short, the researchers said, their brains appeared somewhat older. The slower walkers also looked older to a panel of eight screeners who assessed each subject’s facial age from a photograph. 

Specifically, the study looked at gum health and caries-affected tooth surfaces among the 19 measures of accelerated aging.

Gait speed has long been used as a measure of health and aging in geriatric patients, but what’s new in this study is the relative youth of its subjects and the ability to see how walking speed matches up with health measures the study has collected during their lives, the researchers said.

“It’s a shame we don’t have gait speed and brain imaging for them as children,” Rasmussen said. The MRI was invented when the subjects were five years old, but it was not used on children until many years later.

Some of the differences in health and cognition may be tied to lifestyle choices these individuals have made, the researchers said. But the study also suggests that there are already signs in early life of who would become the slowest walkers, Rasmussen said. 

“We may have a chance here to see who’s going to do better health-wise in later life,” Rasmussen said.

The study, “Association of Neurocognitive and Physical Function With Gait Speed in Midlife,” was published by JAMA Network Open.

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