Older people with depression walk more slowly than those who are not depressed, according to new research at University College London.
Gait speed — the speed that a person walks — is influenced by a variety of factors, including physical ability, range of motion, musculoskeletal health, and mental health.
Although there has been some indication that mental problems can affect gait by way of poorer physical health, there is little research focused on a direct link between gait speed and mental health, and in particular, depression.
Depression is a mental disorder characterized by periods of all-encompassing low mood, and often accompanied by low self-esteem and loss of interest or pleasure in normally enjoyable activities.
For the study, Panayotes Demakakos, Ph.D., of the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London wanted to investigate the relationship between depression and gait speed and also to see whether their influence could go both ways.
In particular, Demakakos wanted to find out if older people with depression walked more slowly than those without, and if slow gait speeds were able to predict depression in older individuals.
Using a sample of 4,581 participants over the age of 60, Demakakos analyzed depressive symptoms and gait speed across a six-year period.
The findings showed that people with slow gait speeds were at greater risk of developing depression in the two years following assessment than those with average gait speeds. Demakakos also found that symptoms of depression were directly linked to slower gait speeds.
The findings can be interpreted in several ways. First, as people get older, they experience declines in physical health and mobility. These factors can reduce walking speed and by limiting physical ability, can eventually have an effect on mental health, possibly leading to depression.
Second, as symptoms of depression increase, physical mobility can be affected, pain can increase and fatigue can set in, all of which combine to decrease walking speed.
The research findings remained consistent even after demographic factors such as marital status, socioeconomic status, and gender were taken into account. Overall, this study shows that gait speed could act as an early sign of depression.
“These findings point to depression as a modifiable risk that needs to be targeted by disability prevention programs at older ages,” said Demakakos.