WEDNESDAY, Feb. 15, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- How fast you walk or how strong your grip is in middle age might help predict your odds for dementia or stroke later in life, a new study suggests.
Tests assessing walking speed and grip can be easily performed in a doctor's office, noted study author Dr. Erica C. Camargo, of the Boston Medical Center.
She and her colleagues tested the walking speed, hand grip strength and cognitive function of more than 2,400 people, average age 62. The participants also underwent brain scans.
During a follow-up period of up to 11 years, 34 people went on to develop dementia (including Alzheimer's disease) and 70 had a stroke.
People who had a slower walking speed at the start of the study were 1.5 times more likely to develop dementia than those with a faster walking speed, according to the findings, which are slated to be presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) in New Orleans in April.
People aged 65 and older who had a stronger hand grip strength at the start of the study had a 42 percent lower risk of stroke or mini-stroke (transient ischemic attack) than those with weaker hand grip strength. This difference was not seen in people younger than 65.
"While frailty and lower physical performance in elderly people have been associated with an increased risk of dementia, we weren't sure until now how it impacted people of middle age," Camargo said in an AAN news release.
The researchers also found that slower walking speed was associated lower total cerebral brain volume and poorer performance on memory, language and decision-making tests. Stronger hand grip was associated with larger total cerebral brain volume and better results on tests of thinking and memory in which people had to identify similarities among objects.
"Further research is needed to understand why this is happening and whether preclinical disease could cause slow walking and decreased strength," Camargo said.
Experts said the findings might be valuable in assessing patient risk.
"It is unclear why there is such a correlation between walking speed and hand grip on these disease processes, yet they are two simple tests that can give us a pre-clinical clue as to what we might expect, and enable us to implement prevention," said Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, a preventive cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
Dr. Marshall Keilson, director of neurology at Maimonides Medical Center, also in New York City, agreed. "At the very least," he noted, "this research suggests novel approaches to early identification of dementia and stroke risk. It would be interesting to test an even younger patient population with the same protocol."
Findings presented at medical meetings should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-revised journal.
The American Academy of Family Physicians has more about dementia.