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Walking speed may predict survival in seniors
January 4th, 2011
04:00 PM ET

Walking speed may predict survival in seniors

Walking is probably an activity you take for granted, but scientists say it could have something to say about the survival of older people.

A large study in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that walking speed may be a good predictor of the life expectancy of senior citizens. Slowing down, it seems, may actually mean the end is nearer.

"This gives us another way to monitor our health and explore ways to age as well as possible," said Dr. Stephanie Studenski, researcher at the University of Pittsburgh and lead study author.

This does not mean, however, that you should try to change your walking speed, she said. The point of the research is that many systems in your body - cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, nervous and others - contribute to the way that you walk, and the health of those systems may be reflected in your natural pace.

Researchers analyzed data from nine different studies, collectively looking at nearly 35,000 adults aged 65 and older. Participants lived in the community - not in nursing homes or other institutions - at the time of the research and included members of both sexes and various ethnic groups. The various studies had looked at how fast participants walked over a fixed distance at a usual pace, beginning with them standing still.

They found that the higher the walking speed, the longer a person is expected to live. This appears to be as good an indicator of longevity as age, sex, chronic conditions, smoking history, blood pressure, body mass index, and hospitalization history in the last year.

For example, researchers found that for a 70-year-old man, the difference between walking 3 mi/hr and 3.5 mi/hr was four years of life on average; for a woman, it's six to seven years. A 70-year-old man who walks at 2.5 mi/hr would expected to live an average of eight years longer than if he walks at 1 mi/hr; for a woman, that difference is about 10 years.

"If you have a natural walking speed that’s pretty brisk, that’s a good sign of how you’re doing," Studenski said.

The study found that walking speed was the strongest predictor of lifespan in older people who were independent or only had trouble with non-instrumental functions such as shopping, housework and cooking. For those who cannot do basic activities such as feeding and dressing themselves on their own, walking speed may be less relevant.

"If you’re already having a lot of trouble, gait speed doesn’t help as much," she said.

Of course, this is all based on probabilities, and it's by no means a death sentence. There are some elderly people who walk slowly and will live many more years, just as there are certain people who have high blood cholesterol and never have a heart attack.

One important potential application of this research is helping older people decide whether certain preventive tests, such as prostate cancer screenings, are worth their while. If their walking speed suggests that they are expected to live  10 more years at age 70, that might be an important factor in making decisions about such tests.

Walking speed might one day become as relevant as blood pressure as an indicator of overall health, she said. But, it will take time to see how useful it is to doctors and patients.


soundoff (40 Responses)
  1. YIKES

    I'm dead!

    January 4, 2011 at 16:22 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Gottasay

      Harry Truman–known for his speedy gait–lived to 88.

      January 4, 2011 at 17:33 | Report abuse |
    • Enoch100

      I know. I just walked by you. Quickly!

      January 4, 2011 at 21:37 | Report abuse |
    • John R

      Hmmm, so, if you, like, walk faster, then, um, that would mean your more heal-theeeeeeee???

      January 5, 2011 at 01:51 | Report abuse |
    • JR

      If an 80 year old starts walking across the grocery store at 1.5 mph; and a 74 year old is walking in the opposite direction at 1.8 mpg, in what year will they get out of my way?

      January 5, 2011 at 02:46 | Report abuse |
  2. JohnnyOh2323

    Hmmm...Dear Dr. Studenski, were the slow walkers also obese...which would seem to be a better indicator of life expectancy? Hmmm.....hmmmm....

    January 4, 2011 at 17:00 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Nate

      This is addressed in the 4th paragraph regarding how all the systems work together. The point is not to say that walking speed predicts expectancy, rather it is correlated, and that perhaps could be used as an overall barometer of health rather than looking at each individual aspect (obesity, hypertension, dyslipidemia, diabetes, activity level, etc). I have not read the study, but I imagine some of the variables may have been controlled as well. Of course, we are always looking for the holy grail that will tell us how long we can expect to live, unfortunately, I don't think that will ever be found and the best we can do is try to find the variable that is the most all-encompassing.

      January 4, 2011 at 17:53 | Report abuse |
  3. inga

    Her saddle oxfords are so cute

    January 4, 2011 at 17:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Bob Bruno

    According to the statements in one paragraph a 70 year old man walking 3.5 mph should live 12 years longer than 70 year old man walking 1 mph. That's if you combine the two statements about 70 year old men. Is that right or did I misread it?

    January 4, 2011 at 17:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Kevin

    Interesting findings. Health professionals have been measuring walking speeds and correlating these findings with falls and health for years. We use a get up and go assessment for our falls prevention program – both pre and post. Many clients see a significant improvement over the course of the classes.

    http://www.caring-for-aging-parents.com

    January 4, 2011 at 17:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Leo

    When my connective tissue disease flares up, the first thing my wife and I notice is that I start walking slower, whether or not I'm having joint pain in my legs and hips. And I can tell when my body has turned a corner in recovering when I naturally fall into my usual brisk walking pace. This study doesn't surprise me at all.

    January 4, 2011 at 17:50 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Adrian

      I do love the manner in which you have farmed this particular situation and it does indeed provide me personally a lot of fodder for thought. However, from everything that I have personally seen, I simply trust when the remarks pack on that individuals stay on issue and don't get started on a soap box of some other news of the day. All the same, thank you for this superb point and even though I can not really concur with the idea in totality, I respect the point of view.

      April 9, 2012 at 02:35 | Report abuse |
  7. Liz in Seattle

    Walking speed DOES correlate with survival, though it depends how fast the lions are running as well.

    January 4, 2011 at 18:00 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Daniel

      That is amusing.

      January 4, 2011 at 18:19 | Report abuse |
    • LivinginVA

      Liz – I was actually thinking zombies.....

      January 5, 2011 at 09:54 | Report abuse |
  8. scott

    This study is

    1) totally expected

    2) completely irrelevant

    THere are so many related risk factors such as CHF, COPD, cadiac disease, peripheral vascular disease, obesity, acute illness, etc. that are contributing this finding. Of course walking speed is correlated with life expectancy. The number of ashtrays in a household is related to the risk of getting lung cancer as well. If you focus on walk speed, you are missing the point.

    This study is a giant waste of time and wont lead to any important change in medical care. No one is going to decide about screening for cancer based on walking time. You need to look at the underlying reasons for a person's life expectancy. Lets focus on treating real diseases instead of measuring the walk times of a bunch of senior citizens. Some doctors have too much time on their hands (this is coming from a physician for what it's worth)

    January 4, 2011 at 18:08 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Donna

      I think it is an interesting study and just because things may or may not be expected, there is no harm in confirming the expectation.

      I didn't like the part of the article that talked about using walking speed as a means of denying cancer screening to those with a slow walking speed. That is health care discrimination (otherwise known as "rationing").

      January 4, 2011 at 18:31 | Report abuse |
    • Vietvet72

      Scott, You are absolutely correct. But even if this report is totally bogus, think of how many older folks (my mother definitely will) will pick up their gait after reading this. That's a good thing. I'm a firm believer that we don't wear out, we rust out.

      January 4, 2011 at 19:04 | Report abuse |
    • Claire

      Scott, why do you keep reading these articles and then slamming them? Most people who read newspapers and sites like this are lay people who may have no knowledge of the topic. If you already know so much, why are you wasting your time on articles that target beginning and novice health readers? Read something more advanced. People like my elderly family members really learn from these articles and find it sparks informative conversations with peers and family. Read scholarly journals–that's what they are for.

      January 5, 2011 at 04:30 | Report abuse |
  9. Marvin

    I will be 93 this April,2-11. I have noticed I do walk slower, that's why I bough a new 2011 Camaro 2 months ago!!

    January 4, 2011 at 18:10 | Report abuse | Reply
    • LEB

      Now I'm worried about the speed that you're driving. Old people notoriously drive slow which annoys other drivers... and a 93 year old driving fast scares the heck out of me.

      January 4, 2011 at 21:30 | Report abuse |
    • Angie, CA

      GO Marvin!!!!!

      January 4, 2011 at 22:22 | Report abuse |
  10. suzanne bellamy

    I find my gait can change with weather and prior exertion; getting to 64 I thought this change normal.I too will pick up the pace yet avoid slipping or tripping and falling due to uneven pavement, dog feces, icy slush and stuff humans throw in the streets.

    January 4, 2011 at 20:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Josef

    Interesting that they call out the horrifying ramifications of such studies, though somewhat sugar-coated. "Seniors can decide if medical tests are worth their while." Fascinating, except that the insurance companies will be determining what is worth your while. Perhaps even denying coverage if the elderly can't sprint at the specified pace. The devaluation of human life in my short lifetime is an absolute tragedy. Let's deny the elderly treatments, medications, and preventive care – – and move one step closer to euthanasia by neglect.

    January 4, 2011 at 21:06 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Colin

      Beats being left out on an iceberg if you're an Eskimo, or alone with an old teepee and water bag if you were a more southerly native 'merican (I'm 63 and have the same concerns, tho).

      January 5, 2011 at 10:41 | Report abuse |
  12. Lee

    This article does not surprise me.

    We have a saying in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine):
    人老腿先老 – A person ages starting from his or her legs.

    Legs are the furthest parts from our body. Any degenerative effects due to aging (inflammations, poor blood circulation, blood vessel hardening, etc, etc) are typically reflected on our legs first.

    January 4, 2011 at 22:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Pubic

    Marvin,go you.Keep on keepin' on.

    January 4, 2011 at 23:15 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Memo

      As we know, lots of warhammer pelyars are Chinese, Chinese guy make many records aboutrunescape gold.Do you want to know how they did it success?They find the less challenging form of the game boring.runescape goldsomeinteresting ways to play with the in-game economy.runescape goldThere seem to be fewer female pelyars of warhammer China.They talked more about color schemes,animations ,architecture,and runescape accountsand runescape moneyso on more than American pelyars ofand wow cd key

      April 14, 2012 at 13:50 | Report abuse |
  14. itzme52

    Duh!

    January 5, 2011 at 00:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. ptschneider

    Harumphh, it doesn't say much for the University of Pittsburgh research program if this is the sort of thing that required an extensive study. What next, will they correlate poverty and substance abuse? Or perhaps correlating vegetative growth with sunlight?

    January 5, 2011 at 06:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. d

    My Mom is 80yo and we walk all the time as the weather allows, she can out walk me anytime and I used to run marathons. She also still works full-time, she is an awesome lady. I think this article is pretty close to true.

    January 5, 2011 at 08:31 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Noocrat

      Anyone can "run" a marathon. Few can run them well. To say you've done one doesn't indicate that you're fast it just indicates that at one point you had the endurance to go a marathon distance at some unspecified, likely moderate, speed.

      January 5, 2011 at 11:25 | Report abuse |
  17. cavemanstyle

    You know you're getting old when you start saying ... " I remember when..." :)

    January 5, 2011 at 09:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. LivinginVA

    My father will be immortal – he's 93, 5'4" and walks fast enough that my 10 year old son is happy to go places with him......

    January 5, 2011 at 09:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. K

    My grandmother is about to turn 96 and the only thing that slows down her walking pace is her asthma that she's had all her life. She can really book it and she's sharp as a tack. Another indicator of her longevity is that her father lived to 103!

    January 5, 2011 at 09:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. J

    my FIL is the slowest walker I have ever seen, and always has been. But he is 85 and going strong. His wife who was a really speedy walker died in her 60's.

    January 5, 2011 at 10:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. b

    Duh. I hope tax payer (NIH grant) money was not spent on this.

    January 5, 2011 at 10:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Scott

    I get infuriated at how slow some people walk in the city. Even worse is when you get groups of 3 or 4 that take up the entire sidewalk so you can't pass them.

    January 5, 2011 at 15:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. henry

    I don't think this will ever be a valid health test. When you're tested, you'll just try to walk faster. You can't fake blood pressure or cholesterol, but you can fake you're natural walking speed.

    January 6, 2011 at 10:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. ybs

    How come this doesn't seem to apply to those Buddhists with leisurely gaits? Perhaps, they are the real gods!

    January 7, 2011 at 04:07 | Report abuse | Reply

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.