The Way You Walk Is the Way You Think
I’ve been following the research of Joe Verghese, MD, who is the recently-appointed head of Geriatrics at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx.
Some of his research looks at patterns of walking to predict the onset of dementia. It turns out that people in their 70’s with observable alterations from normal gait are more likely to suffer from non-Alzheimer’s types of cognitive decline than those whose walking is normal.
This insight is extremely interesting to me. But probably not for the reasons that Dr. Verghese might imagine.
(I’m guessing here, but) he might be thinking about the “medical” reasons why someone has changes in gait: compromised circulation, nerve damage, or brain deterioration of the areas involved with movement processing. Any of these conditions would increase the risk for dementia, and altered walking would be an early warning sign of future problems.
That’s important. But one of my deep interests (going back to my days studying dance) is in the meaning of variations of movement quality, even when they’re not related to overt medical pathology.
Movement behavior reflects brain activity. I’m oversimplifying here, but people with limited, inflexible, or ineffective movement capabilities are people whose brains are not being stimulated in diverse ways, with more rigid patterns of nerve signal processing.
The brain of a healthy individual has extraordinary plasticity. You can acquire a new language, master a musical instrument, or learn a new dance step. You can train your brain waves to coordinate themselves with regular mindfulness meditation, or reprogram your emotional reactions with cognitive-behavioral therapy.
All these are healthy signs of adaptable brain mechanisms. When we lose our adaptability our health – in this case our neurological health – plummets.
My research plan would be to see if individuals who have an altered pattern of gait can learn (or re-learn) to walk with more grace, balance and flow. And if they can, does the learning process protect them from dementia?
Naturally, when most scientists talk about walking speed and physical exercise, they relate them to basic physiological variables such as muscle strength and heart and lung capacity.
Those measures of physical fitness are important. But walking speed also reflects movement skill.
We all learn to walk early in childhood. Soon thereafter, the organizing schemes in the brain and spinal cord that control walking go on auto-pilot. Most of us never again think about the complex movement integration that goes into creating a smooth, efficient pattern of walking.
But I do. And as part of my therapeutic work I often train people in basic movement and postural skills such as walking.
Learning a proper pattern of gait takes stress off the joints of the feet, knees, and low back. It serves as a background for improving your fitness, because all of your movements become more efficient.
But equally importantly, movement skills training stimulates your brain. That’s at the core of building health, enjoying life, and preventing dementia.