For the first time walking patterns identify specific types of dementia

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Pioneering research has revealed that analysing how a person walks may be a key clinical tool in helping to accurately identify the specific type of dementia a patient has - Alzheimer's disease or Lewy body dementia.

Researchers at UK’s 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. Dementia is an umbrella term that describes different brain disorders that triggers loss of brain function, including Alzheimer's disease and Lewy body dementia. These conditions are usually progressive and eventually severe. 

Dementia Australia estimates that there are currently 84,940 people living with dementia in Queensland. Without a medical breakthrough, this is expected to increase to over 116,000 people by 2028 and 207,000 people by 2058.

The research paper, published 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.

Dr Ríona McArdle, Post-Doctoral Researcher at Newcastle University's Faculty of Medical Sciences, led the research. "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,” she said.

“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. 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.

People with Lewy body dementia had a unique walking pattern in that they changed how long it took to take a step or the length of their steps more frequently than someone with Alzheimer's disease, whose walking patterns rarely changed.

When a person has Lewy body dementia, their steps are more irregular and this is associated with increased falls risk. Their walking is more asymmetric in step time and stride length, meaning their left and right footsteps look different to each other. The researchers found that analysing both step length variability and step time asymmetry could accurately identify 60% of all dementia subtypes. Further work will aim to identify how these characteristics enhance current diagnostic procedures, and assess their feasibility as a screening method. 

Dr James Pickett, Head of Research at the UK’s Alzheimer's Society, said: "in this well conducted study 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. This research is pioneering for dementia. It shows promise in helping to establish a novel approach to accurately diagnose different types of dementia.”