Walking To Prevent Dementia

We all start the new year with strong intentions, whether we call them goals, aspirations, mantras or reminders. The process of evaluating the past year to shape our future begins as soon as we turn over the calendar.

My aspiration for the new year involves slowing down into more intentionality. If you’ve read my work, I usually espouse a maxim by philosopher, Thich Nhat Hanh: When you walk, only walk. Simple instructions for our lives.

It turns out, researchers have other ideas about our walking and how gait can aid in not only simplifying our life but also in determining our cognitive functioning.

Can gait analysis help our brains?

Mitzi Gonzales, Ph.D., ABPP-CN, a neuropsychologist at Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, shared in an article by UT Health San Antonio that changes in how a person walks could help detect and distinguish different types of dementia. This is most evident when a patient is asked to walk while simultaneously solving a problem.

There is a study underway to find out how the gait of someone living with Lewy body dementia might be different from the gait of someone living with Alzheimer’s. Though the study must also consider the effects of past injuries, scientists plan to use technology to create a gait map of the participants’ walking strides.

Here, the Thich Nhat Hanh’s suggestion might pay off for those of us concerned about the brain-body connection. Following an injury to my knee, I’ve had issues that consistently force me to evaluate and readjust how I step and walk.

“Typically, some people see trade-off costs in the fact that their gait gets a little slower when they are performing a task such as subtracting by threes,” Gonzales said in the interview with UT Health San Antonio. “But in individuals living with a neurodegenerative disorder, we see more pronounced changes and that’s what we are interested in looking into further.”

Luckily, what I try to do most while walking is walk or take photos with my phone. Math is not a problem I am trying to solve, especially while out in the city. However, I appreciate where the research is headed. Walking not only takes us outside but keeps us independent. Scientists will soon have the knowledge on how we can put into practice better habits when we stride.

Counting Our Steps

By now, most of us possess or know someone who owns a smartwatch to track steps throughout the course of the day. My husband works on his feet all day. The average amount of steps he takes during a normal workday is 8,500, which could possibly be higher because he tends to take the stairs. As a writer, I must force myself to walk around the house, outdoors and will often go to the library if not for a book, then for a jaunt. I’d love to see a study published on the average number of words written per day to stave off dementia. For now, thanks to new research, I will count my steps.

In a study published in JAMA Neurology in September 2022, over 75,000 healthy people aged 40-79 who wore fitness trackers all day for at least three days logged their walking steps for seven years. Those who walked about 9,800 steps per day (about five miles) were 51% less likely to develop dementia. Even if one cut their steps to 3,800, there was still a 25% decrease in the likelihood of developing dementia. Though one should note, these results were from a purely observational study with plans for more detailed research.

If that number of steps proves too daunting, try the “Teabag walk.” In the Christmas 2022 issue of British Medical Journal, scientists published a study that proved 11 minutes of inefficiently walking, like the John Cleese character in Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks,” will benefit our health. The Teabag walk proved to significantly increase energy expenditure – about two and a half times the energy used in a normal walking gait.

I’ve tried the Teabag walk several times and can confirm my heart rate did soar, while my tight hamstrings did not allow for maximum strides. However, I did provide a load of entertainment for city drivers when I attempted to be silly, which is also a healthy approach for the new year.

Annette Januzzi Wick is a writer, speaker, and author of I’ll Have Some of Yours, a journey of cookies and caregiving (Three Arch Press). A frequent contributor to Cincinnati.com, her work has appeared in Cincinnati Magazine, nextavenue.com, Still Point Arts, 3rd Act Magazine, Ovunque Siamo, Belt Magazine, Creative Nonfiction, and Italian Americana (forthcoming). Visit annettejwick.com to learn more.