Changing gait could be early sign of Parkinson’s

The research claims to have discovered a definitive link between a change in someone's gait and a decline in their cognitive function. Picture: Neil Hanna
The research claims to have discovered a definitive link between a change in someone's gait and a decline in their cognitive function. Picture: Neil Hanna
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CHANGES in the way someone walks could be an early sign of Parkinson’s disease, according to a new study.

More than 120 people with Parkinson’s were asked to walk for two minutes in a laboratory and their gait was analysed.

The research claims to have found a definitive link between a change in gait and a decline in cognitive function.

Study leader Lynn Rochester, professor of human movement science at Newcastle University, said: “In the future, walking patterns may be a useful early warning system to help identify dementia risk in Parkinson’s.”

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She added: “Subtle changes in walking pattern, for example slowing down of steps, and increased sway from side to side are related to cognitive function even before changes are seen in ­cognitive tests.

“Ongoing work will confirm if it is possible to predict future cognitive decline and dementia risk. However, this early work shows great promise.

“If we can use this and test people who may be at risk, then we could pick up the early signs and begin treatment and advice.”

Ms Rochester said it had been known for several years that there was a link between “gait disturbance” and dementia in older adults, but until now the link had not been clear in

Parkinson’s.

Around 127,000 people in the UK have been diagnosed with the disease.

In February, comic Billy Connolly revealed how a fan diagnosed his Parkinson’s disease after spotting him “walking strangely” through a hotel lobby.

He said a Tasmanian doctor staying at the same Los Angeles hotel told him to see his own GP due to his “strange gait”.

He said: “It was the strangest thing of all. I was walking through the lobby and every time I had gone through there was a crowd of boys and girls and a couple of adults. It turned out they were dancers from Australia.

“The guy in charge of them came over to me one day and said, ‘Billy, I’m a big fan, I’m from Tasmania’. He said, ‘I’m a surgeon and have been watching you walking; you have a strange gait’. That was the way he put it.

“He said, ‘You’re showing distinct signs of early-onset Parkinson’s disease – see your doctor’. I think it was the way I held myself when I was walking.

“Then they did blood tests and various other little bits and pieces and told me I had it.”

Symptoms of Parkinson’s include slow movements, tremor, rigidity and Parkinson’s gait, a distinctive unsteady walk.

Those with the disease can tend to lean unnaturally backward or forward, and develop a stooped, head-down, shoulders-drooped stance. Arm swing is diminished or absent and they tend to take small shuffling steps, called festination. They may have trouble starting to walk, appear to be falling forward as they walk, freeze mid-stride, and have trouble turning.

Dr Beckie Port, for Parkinson’s UK Research, said: “We know people with Parkinson’s are at greater risk of developing problems with dementia than people without. However, we still don’t fully understand the relationship between the two.

“This research, which builds on our study into Parkinson’s-related dementia, provides crucial insights into subtle changes in walking that could help us identify people with Parkinson’s at risk of developing dementia and problems with thinking and memory at a much earlier stage.”