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Warning signs for dementia can be found in the way you walk

GPs could be diagnosing potential sufferers by watching their patients’ steps years before the disease fully develops. The news opens up the possibility of preventative treatment years before the condition develops fully. A new trial at Essex University aims to identify sufferers using specialised movement tracking computer programmes. 

Researchers have now recruited 1,000 people, all over the age of 55, who will be monitored and tested over a ten-year period.

The intention is to discover any patterns in the type of physical changes that occur in those who go on to develop dementia or other neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s.

Although previous studies have shown that Alzheimer’s patients slow down their walking speed and can also hold themselves differently as they walk, with the symptoms becoming more pronounced as they deteriorate, this will be, by far, the most detailed research into the discovery.

Currently, the most common test for diagnosing the disease is the Mini Mental State Examination. Doctors ask patients to confirm the date, identify common every day obkjects and repeat specific words back to them over the course of the examination. By simply observing the way their older patients walk, GPs might be prompted to offer more stringent diagnostic tests to potential sufferers, believes Dr Matthew Taylor, a specialist in biomechanics at Essex University.

 He says: ‘The purpose of our study is to look at changes in gait in more detail than has been done so far. For example, our physiotherapists have observed anecdotally that dementia patients often have reduced arm swing, but as far as we know this has not been measured.

Such a change in arm swing could be an earlier indication of dementia than reduced walking speed, or perhaps some other aspect of changing gait we don’t know about yet.’

The healthy subjects currently being recruited will be fitted with special markers which can be read by the equipment’s infrared cameras. The cameras will allow computers to map changes that are often too slight to be spotted by the human eye in the earliest stages.

The study is expected to benefit those with Parkinson’s too.

‘We know they develop a shuffling gait,’ says Dr Taylor.

‘If we see those who develop this condition starting to walk in a different way in the years leading up to their diagnosis, doctors may be able to offer earlier intervention.’

The Essex study also aims to prevent falls by seeing if there are any patterns in the walk of those who are prone to losing their balance. ‘Treating injuries from falls currently costs the NHS £1 billion a year, so there is a pressing need to see if it can be prevented,’ says Dr Taylor.

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