Walking Slowly Associated with Poor Health in Senior
Citizens but It May Be Due to Fat Thighs
Study finds older adults who gained the most thigh
fat and lost the most thigh muscle were at greatest risk of a meaningful
decline in walking speed
Feb. 19, 2013 – Previous studies have shown that
walking speed declines with age and the slower senior citizens walk the
less time they have to live. A new study suggests, however, that
prevention of age-related declines in walking speed isn't just about
preserving muscle mass, it's also about preventing fat gain – in the
This new study by lead author Kristen Beavers,
Ph.D., and colleagues at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center shows that
an increase in fat throughout the thigh is predictive of mobility loss
in otherwise healthy older adults.
Walking speed declines with age, said Beavers, and
in older adults slower walking speed is a predictor of disability,
nursing home admission and even death. As such, she believes that
walking speed represents an important, and potentially modifiable,
predictor of independent living for older adults.
Unfortunately, said Beavers, not much is known
about what precedes this decline, although change in body composition
seemed like a reasonable place to start the research.
"As people age, they are more likely to gain fat in
and around their muscles, and we speculated that gaining fat in the leg
muscle itself would be related to slowed walking speed."
The researchers used data from the National
Institute on Aging's Health, Aging, and Body Composition (Health ABC)
study, a prospective cohort of several thousand initially
well-functioning white and black adults aged 70-79. They looked at how
changes in fat and lean mass affected walking speed, and were
specifically interested in whether changes in thigh intermuscular fat or
thigh muscle area were more predictive of slowed walking speed.
A study sample of 2,306 men and women was reviewed,
with a mean age of 74.6 years. Walking speed was assessed by measuring
the usual time it took participants to complete a 20-minute walk, and
they were tested annually over a four-year period. Body composition
measures were assessed via computed tomography (CT).
Results, published online ahead of print in the
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found both increasing thigh
intermuscular fat and decreasing thigh muscle area to be significant,
independent predictors of walking speed decline.
Importantly, said Beavers, older adults who gained
the most thigh fat and lost the most thigh muscle were at greatest risk
of experiencing a clinically meaningful decline in walking speed.
Beavers said this study is the first of its kind to
address the independent association between changes in sophisticated
measures of body composition and walking speed.
"As the burden of disability becomes increasingly
common and expensive, identification of modifiable contributors to
functional decline in older adults is emerging as a significant priority
of public health research," Beavers said.
"Future studies building on these findings should
test whether targeted reductions in thigh intermuscular fat,
augmentation of thigh muscle area, or both yield improvements in walking
speed and prolonged independence for older adults."
This research was supported by the NIA (contracts
N01-AG-6-2101,N01-AG-6-2103, and N01-AG-6-2106 and grant R01-AG028050),
the National Institute on Nursing Research (grant R01-NR012459), the
Wake Forest University Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence
Center (P30-AG21332), and an individual postdoctoral fellowship
(F32-AG039186; to KMB) and supported in part by the Intramural Research
Program of the NIH, NIA.
Co-authors are: Daniel P. Beavers, Ph.D., Denise K.
Houston, Ph.D., Barbara J. Nicklas and Stephen Kritchevsky, all of Wake
Forest Baptist; Tamara B. Harris and Eleanor M. Simonsick, of NIA;
Trisha F. Hue of University of California, San Francisco; Annemarie
Koster, of Maastricht University, Netherlands; and Anne B. Newman and
Stephanie A. Studenski, of University of Pittsburgh.
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