May 12, 2006

Ability to Walk Can Foretell the Future

photo of an elderly couple walking

Exercise tests can be used to predict a person's risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality. But they can be too rigorous for many older adults. A new study led by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine shows that an extended walking test is effective at predicting health outcomes in older adults.

The researchers, supported by a grant from NIH's National Institute on Aging, enrolled 3,075 people between 70 and 79 years old living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Memphis, Tennessee. Some people were excluded from the test for medical safety. Those who participated were asked to walk a quarter of a mile in a hallway (10 laps) after a 2-minute warm-up, and were given encouragement at each lap. They were told to "walk as quickly as you can, without running, at a pace you can maintain." Of the 2,680 eligible for the test, 86% completed the full distance, while 13% couldn't.

The researchers report in the May 3, 2006 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association that exclusion from the walking test or an inability to complete it were associated about 5 years later with a higher risk of mortality, cardiovascular disease and mobility limitations or disabilities. Among those able to complete a test, each additional minute it took them to finish was associated with a 29% higher rate of mortality, a 20% higher rate of cardiovascular disease and a 52% higher rate of mobility problems.

This study shows that, in apparently well-functioning older adults, a relatively simple test can expose a wide range of function and health risk. This finding highlights the importance of fitness in older adults. People who stay physically active into their 70s raise their chance of living longer and healthier lives into their 80s.

Related Links