There is certainly no shortage of sophisticated machinery that can measure how healthy you are, from scanners to genetic and molecular tests that can expose the inner workings of your cells, but doctors may soon be relying on something far simpler to gauge your well-being. Don’t be surprised if at your next checkup, your physician asks you to take a stroll.
That’s right, a walk. While researchers have known that walking speed is a good proxy for how healthy and functional someone is, new work suggests that how fast you walk may also be a strong predictor for how long older adults will live.
An international group of scientists reports in the Journal of the American Medical Association that gait speed can predict five- and ten-year survival among those 65 years or older with reliable accuracy. After pooling data from nine large studies of elderly adults conducted between 1986 and 2000, the researchers, led by Dr. Stephanie Studenski at the University of Pittsburgh, found that among men aged 75 to 84, for example, those with the fastest walking speeds (more than 1.4 meters/second) increased their chances of surviving 10 more years by 92%, while those who walked the slowest, at 0.4 meters/second, enhanced their chances of surviving the same time by 15%. Women enjoyed similar benefits if they walked faster, although those with the slowest gaits enjoyed a greater chance of surviving, 35%, than did the men. (More on TIME.com: Study Shows Walking is Brain Exercise, Too)
The findings confirm previous studies that had linked walking speed to health, but for the first time, the benefit is quantified in a way that could be helpful for physicians treating older patients. How quickly an elderly person walks is a good indicator of how well a variety of their organ systems are functioning, from the most obvious muscle, joint and skeletal networks to the heart, lungs, blood, brain, nerves and other cells. Assessing a person’s overall function by their walking speed could be an easy and inexpensive way for doctors to determine, for instance, whether their patients could benefit from preventive health measures such as changes in diet or exercise that could extend their survival even more. Or, alternatively, the test could identify patients who are in poorer health, and could improve their survival chances with additional treatments or other medical interventions. By tracking walking speed, doctors can also measure whether a patient’s health is declining over time, since a slowing in gait could signal an impending medical problem.
What the data do not suggest, however, is that anyone can extend their life simply by walking faster. “We don’t want people to just got out and walk faster,” says Studenski. “What we are saying is that your body selects the best walking speed for you based on its capacity, safety, and other factors. But the systems that contribute to your walking speed can be improved. So as you address the underlying health of your body, your walking speed will change itself.” (More on TIME.com: Anxious Kids Benefit from Walking to School)
She also stresses that the study did not show that if you are a slow walker, quickening your pace can actually add years to your life; the results merely link faster gaits to a tendency to live longer. But the findings do hint that those who are able to keep up a brisk stride may be in overall better health, and that’s the message that Studenski hopes to convey. “The way you walk,” she says, “is a reflection of the health of many of your body systems.”
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