The way people walk appears to speak volumes about the way they think, so much so that changes in an older person’s gait appear to be an early indicator of cognitive impairment, including Alzheimer’s disease.

Five studies presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Vancouver this month provide striking evidence that when a person’s walk gets slower or becomes more variable or less controlled, his cognitive function is also suffering.

Thinking skills like memory, planning activities or processing information decline almost in parallel with the ability to walk fluidly, these studies show.

In other words, the more trouble people have walking, the more trouble they have thinking.

“Changes in walking may predate actually observable cognitive changes in people who are on their way to developing dementia,” said Molly Wagster, chief of the National Institute on Aging’s behavioral and systems neuroscience branch. Experts said the studies could lead to developing a relatively simple tool that doctors could use to forecast, if not diagnose, possible Alzheimer’s disease.

While scientists have studied gait changes after a heart attack or stroke and in diseases like Parkinson’s, they have only recently begun studying connections between walking and cognition. For decades, people thought slower walking was just part of getting old, but research shows some changes in gait signify problems that go beyond normal aging.

The new studies were larger and more detailed than previous research, and involved sophisticated measures of changes in gait. Some used an electronic walkway, a long mat outfitted with sensors that measure small differences in walking speed, cadence (the number of steps per minute), the width of the stride and variability (how often the person’s stride changes).

The studies screened out people with arthritis or other physical problems, and adjusted for height, age, weight and sex.

For the full set of studies, visit the press release by the US Alzheimer's Association at: