You know that feeling you get when you go weak in the knees? Your head gets a little dizzy and you feel light and wobbly…
It’s a wonderful sensation if you’re falling in love. But it’s awful if you’re about to actually fall over.
Keeping your lower body strong is one way to help prevent falls as you get older, but the reasons for this are not as obvious as you may think…
Read on to discover the surprisingly close relationship between walking, falling and cognitive decline…
Walk away from Alzheimer’s disease
As you know, beta-amyloid plaques are sticky substances that adhere to the neurons and cause them to die, triggering Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
But did you know the rate at which a person walks could indicate the presence of these plaques in their brain?
In a study published in the journal Neurology, lead researcher Natalia del Campo and her colleagues investigated a possible relationship between beta-amyloid plaques in the brain and gait speed in elderly people at high risk for dementia.
The researchers measured the gait speed and ran PET scans of 128 elderly people who ranged from healthy to mildly cognitively impaired. Nearly all participants had spontaneous memory complaints.
They discovered a distinct correlation between slow gait and a buildup of beta-amyloid plaques in particular regions of the brain,(1) including:
- posterior and anterior putamen, responsible for controlling numerous types of motor skills;
- occipital cortex, which controls visual understanding and spatial functioning;
- precuneus, associated with self-awareness and consciousness, and both episodic and source memory;
- anterior cingulate, which plays a crucial role in initiation, motivation and goal-directed behaviors.
The buildup of beta-amyloid plaques in these regions accounted for up to 9% of the variance of gait speed.
While there is a distinct relationship between plaques, gait speed and risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, the researchers admit they’re not certain of the cause-effect relationship.
“It is possible that amyloid accumulation and slow gait speed co-occur as the result of a common lifestyle factor such as a deficient diet… low physical activity or smoking,” Dr. del Campo said.
Walking uses complex systems in your brain, so it’s not so surprising that slow gait speed—or a changed gait—could indicate brain abnormalities.
Also, when areas of the brain go unused for a long time, they begin to weaken, so it’s possible a sedentary lifestyle characterized by very little walking or lack of vigorous leg muscle use could lead to not only muscle atrophy but brain weakening as well…
Strong legs equal a strong brain
Researchers at Kings College London tested the theory that muscle fitness, as measured by leg power, could predict rates of cognitive decline over time. They studied a total of 324 healthy twin females between the ages of 43 and 73 over a 10 year period.
The results, published in the journal Gerontology in 2015, showed a striking correlation between leg power and the brain.
After controlling for genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors, the researcher found the twin with more leg power retained higher cognitive functioning, as well as more overall grey matter over time.(2)
According to lead researcher Dr. Claire Steves, “When it came to cognitive ageing, leg strength was the strongest factor that had an impact in our study.”
Falling for Alzheimer’s disease
Research provides another reason to keep your legs strong. If greater leg strength correlates to higher cognitive functioning, then it also means the stronger your legs are, the less likely you are to fall as you age.
A study of “very old adults” published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found falls could be predicted by measuring cognitive abilities.
The researchers measured the participants’ cognitive functioning, along with self-reported fall incidences, three times over eight years. They discovered a direct relationship between decreased verbal ability, processing speed and immediate memory and increased rates of falling and fall risks.(3)
Putting all this research together, it seems strong legs keep your brain firing on all cylinders, which wards of cognitive decline, which in turn reduces the risk of falling and causing greater physical and/or mental and emotional problems.
Keeping your legs strong and warding off Alzheimer’s disease could be as easy as taking the stairs, walking a few blocks to the store or walking on a treadmill a few times a week.
If you’re feeling sprightly, begin an exercise regimen that includes squats, lunges, calf raises and step-ups (using bodyweight or light weights) to ensure your legs muscles, and your brain “muscles,” stay strong and healthy for years to come.
- Relationship of regional brain β-amyloid to gait speed. https://www.aan.com/PressRoom/Home/GetDigitalAsset/11973
- Kicking back cognitive ageing: Leg power predicts cognitive ageing after ten years in older female twins. https://www.karger.com/Article/FullText/441029
- An 8-year prospective study of the relationship between cognitive performance and falling in very old adults. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1532-5415.2006.00813.x/abstract;jsessionid=FFCD82B47FBF3FFA76269195FBE413D3.f01t04?userIsAuthenticated=false&deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=