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Are You Concerned about the Way You Walk?

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By Patricia A. Woodburry

Like most everything else, the way we walk changes as we age.  Maybe you have noticed it in yourself or a friend.  You see a slower step, a slight stagger, or a limp, a shuffle or a tilt.  But how do you know what is normal and what is not?

Dr. Peter V. Rabins, M.D., M.P.H., professor at the Erickson School of Aging, University of Maryland says, that “it is most important that walking difficulty should not be accepted as an inevitable consequence of aging.”  A study in 2013 estimated that about 10% of people between the ages of 60 and 69 and nearly 62% of people ages 80 to 97, have a gait or walking pattern disorder. 

Age-related gait changes can result from a general reduction in fitness, including loss of limb strength a declining sense of balance, and less lung and heart capacity.  People with stronger legs or more range of motion in their ankles and hips walk faster.  The fear of falling can cause gait change and having to stop walking while talking is a predictor of future falls.

There are several distinct elements that determine whether a gait is normal.

  • Speed.  Most adults walk more slowly as they age.  A reason for this may be a decreased strength in the calf muscles, which help to propel you forward.
  • Cadence.  Cadence is related to leg length; tall people take longer steps and short people take shorter steps at a faster cadence. 
  • Walking posture.  An upright walking position is normal in healthy older adults.  However, some may tilt their pelvis forward because of weak abdominal muscles and tight hip-flexor muscles. 
  • Joint motion. Ankle flexibility may be reduced when walking and older adults have a limited range of motion in the hips.

One gait test to consider is the Timed Get Up and Go Test.  You should be able to get up from a chair without using your hands, walk 10 feet, turn, and return and sit back down in 10 seconds.  If you take 14 seconds or more this is considered abnormal. 

Dr. Rabins says that “An abnormal gait is rarely due to one single factor.  Most gait disorders involve multiple contributing factors.”  To determine what may be causing the gait problem requires a complete medical evaluation.  The cause can be anything from ill-fitting shoes, a vitamin B12 deficiency, drug side effects or a neurologic disorder.

Many conditions, such as arthritis and Parkinson’s disease improve with exercise.  Physical therapy can lead to dramatic improvements, as can group activities such as a tai chi class.  Resistance or weight training exercises, balance training and walking can help.  Exercise and physical therapy should be aimed at strengthening and lengthening specific muscles that are affected.

Dr. Rabins reminds us that a change in gait or walking difficulties is not an inevitable consequence of aging.  Symptoms of weakness, unsteadiness, slowness, pain or stumbling while walking should be assessed by your health care provider. 

Source:  University of California, Berkeley, Health After 50, May 2017.