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Studying patients walking can help identify dementia types, researchers suggest

Experts at Newcastle University believe the breakthrough could help with diagnosis and may be used by the NHS in five years.

Studying how people walk could indicate what kind of dementia they have, scientists have found (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)
Studying how people walk could indicate what kind of dementia they have, scientists have found (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

By Tom Wilkinson, PA

The way someone walks could be used to identify the specific type of dementia a patient has, researchers have revealed.

Newcastle University scientists have shown that people with Alzheimer’s disease or Lewy body dementia have unique walking patterns that signal subtle differences between the two conditions.

They have found that people with Lewy body dementia vary their step time and length and their left foot and right foot movements are asymmetric, when compared to people who have Alzheimer’s disease.

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Dr Ríona McArdle from Newcastle University’s Faculty of Medical Sciences, led the Alzheimer’s Society-funded research into patients’ gait (Newcastle University/PA)

The research, published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, was seen as a first step towards establishing gait as a marker for the various sub-types of disease and could lead to improved treatment plans in the future.

Dr Riona McArdle, a post-doctoral researcher at Newcastle University’s Faculty of Medical Sciences, led the Alzheimer’s Society-funded research.

She said: “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.

“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.”

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Studies were carried out at the Gait Lab in Newcastle (Newcastle University/PA)

Diagnosis of the main two types of dementia currently involves identifying different symptoms and a brain scan if required.

For the research, scientists analysed the way 110 people walked, with 36 of them having Alzheimer’s and 45 with Lewy body dementia.

They undertook a walking test at the Gait Lab of the Clinical Ageing Research Unit in Newcastle, and moved along a mat with thousands of sensors inside, which monitored their footsteps and revealed their walking pattern.

While the people with Alzheimer’s disease rarely changed their walking patterns, those with Lewy body dementia altered how long it took to take a step or the length of their steps more frequently.

They have a greater risk of falling due to the irregular steps they take.

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John Tinkler, who has Lewy body dementia, with his wife Jenny on holiday last year (Newcastle University handout/PA)

Scientists found that analysing both step length variability and step time asymmetry could accurately identify 60% of all dementia subtypes – which has never been shown before.

More work will be done to see how this could be used to improve diagnoses and it was hoped this could be used by the NHS within five years.

Dr James Pickett, head of research at the 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 – funded by the Alzheimer’s Society – is pioneering for dementia. It shows promise in helping to establish a novel approach to accurately diagnose different types of dementia.”

John Tinkler, 70, from Langley Park, County Durham, has lived with Lewy body dementia for three years.

The grandfather was diagnosed after having problems walking when he began to shuffle his feet and trip over.

His wife Jenny, a physiotherapist, said: “The findings of the study are exciting because it can help lead to a definitive diagnosis of the subtype of dementia, which will allow patients to be on the right management programme as early as possible.

“If patients and their families know the specific type of dementia they are dealing with, this enables there to be a greater understanding of the specific needs of the person living with the condition.”

PA

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