According to a new study led by Panayotes Demakakos of the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London, older people with depression walk slower than their peers who do not have depression. Gait speed, or the speed that a person walks, is influenced by a host of factors, including physical ability, range of motion, musculoskeletal health, and mental health. Although there has been some evidence that psychological conditions can affect gait by way of diminished physical health, there is little research focused on examining a direct link between gait speed and psychological health, and in particular, depression.
Demakakos wanted to explore how depression and gait speed were related and also to evaluate whether their influence was bidirectional. In particular, Demakakos wanted to find out if older individuals with depression had slower gait speeds than those without, and if slow gait speeds predicted depression in older individuals.
Using a sample of 4,581 individuals over age 60, Demakakos measured depressive symptoms and gait speed across a six-year period. The results revealed that people with slow gait speeds had a higher risk of developing depression in the two years following assessment than those with average gait speeds. Further, Demakakos also discovered that depressive symptoms were directly linked to slow gait speeds.
The results can be interpreted in many ways. First, as people age, they experience declines in physical health and mobility. These factors can decrease gait speed and by limiting physical ability, can eventually erode mental well-being and put people at risk for depression. Second, as depressive symptoms increase, physical mobility can become impaired, pain can increase and fatigue can set in, all of which combine to decrease walking speed.
The results presented here were consistent even after demographic factors such as marital status, socioeconomic status, and gender were taken into consideration. In sum, this study shows that gait speed could act as an early indicator for depression. Demakakos added, “These findings point to depression as a modifiable risk that needs to be targeted by disability prevention programs at older ages.”