For the first time, scientists at Newcastle University have shown that people with Alzheimer’s disease or Lewy body dementia have unique walking patterns that signal subtle differences between the two conditions. The research, published today in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, shows that people with Lewy body dementia change their walking steps more – varying step time and length – and are asymmetric when they move, in comparison to those with Alzheimer’s disease. It is a first significant step towards establishing gait as a clinical biomarker for various subtypes of the disease and could lead to improved treatment plans for patients.
“The way we walk can reflect changes in thinking and memory that highlight problems in our brain, such as dementia. “Correctly identifying what type of dementia someone has is important for clinicians and researchers as it allows patients to be given the most appropriate treatment for their needs as soon as possible”, says Dr Ríona McArdle, Post-Doctoral Researcher at Newcastle University’s Faculty of Medical Sciences, who led the Alzheimer’s Society-funded research. The results from this study are exciting as they suggest that walking could be a useful tool to add to the diagnostic toolbox for dementia. “It is a key development as a more accurate diagnosis means that we know that people are getting the right treatment, care and management for the dementia they have.”
Current diagnosis of the two types of dementia is made through identifying different symptoms and, when required, a brain scan. For the study, researchers analysed the walk of 110 people, including 29 older adults whose cognition was intact, 36 with Alzheimer’s disease and 45 with Lewy body dementia. The participants took part in a simple walking test at the Gait Lab of the Clinical Ageing Research Unit, an NIHR-funded research initiative jointly run by Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Newcastle University. Participants moved along a walkway – a mat with thousands of sensors inside – which captured their footsteps as they walked across it at their normal speed and this revealed their walking patterns.