The way dementia patients walk can provide critical new insight into their condition, doctors have learned.
Those with Lewy body dementia vary the length and timing of their steps more than those with Alzheimer’s, according to the study that looked at the pace, rhythm, posture, and other aspects of their walks.
The discovery could lead to earlier diagnoses and better treatment, researchers said, given that Lewy body dementia and Alzheimer’s disease respond differently to commonly used dementia medication.
“Research has previously shown that people with dementia have walking problems,” said Dr. Ríona McArdle of Britain’s Newcastle University who led the research. “However, there was little knowledge when it came to what kind of walking problems specific types of dementia have.”
“Correctly identifying what type of dementia someone has … allows patients to be given the most appropriate treatment for their needs as soon as possible.”
Researchers studied the walks of 110 people, 36 of whom had Alzheimer’s disease and 45 of whom had Lewy body dementia.
The subjects walked along a mat with thousands of sensors that measured their footsteps’ speed and patterns.
People with Lewy body dementia more frequently changed the pace and length of their steps than those with Alzheimer’s disease, whose walking patterns varied little, it said.
Their steps were less symmetrical, meaning their left and right footsteps differed, and more irregular steps increase the risk of falling, the research said.
“We can see for the first time that the way we walk may provide clues which could help us distinguish between Alzheimer’s disease and Lewy body dementia,” said Dr. James Pickett, head of research at Britain’s Alzheimer’s Society that funded the research.
Because walking requires coordination among various regions of the brain, impairment could indicate neurodegeneration even in mild stages and help distinguish dementia from normal aging, the research said.
In the United States, about 5.8 million people have Alzheimer’s, while an estimated 1.3 million people have Lewy body dementia.
Lewy body dementia is often mistaken for Alzheimer’s, and many patients actually have both.
But Lewy body dementia patients are more highly sensitive to antipsychotics, have faster cognitive declines and earlier mortality.
It occurs when abnormal deposits of a protein called alpha-synuclein — called Lewy bodies — build up in the areas of the brain responsible for regulating behavior, cognition and movement.
Symptoms include confusion, changes in reasoning, hallucinations, problems with movement such as balance issues and rigidity and sleeping disorders.
While Alzheimer’s affects the brain’s ability to store new information and create memories, Lewy body dementia affects cognitive functions of problem-solving and reasoning.