Slower walking speed may predict future mobility problems

Summary: Slower walking speed may be associated with the development of mobility disorders later in life.

Source: American Geriatric Society

Being able to walk outside for several blocks at a leisurely pace plays an important role in living a vibrant, healthy life. Walking short distances allows you to get the physical activity you need, live independently, go shopping, access health care, and engage in a social life.

Being able to walk at even a slow speed is essential to all these benefits–but walking too slowly may foreshadow future problems that could prevent you from being fully mobile.

Until now, there has been no ideal way for healthcare providers to measure walking ability, since it involves more than just walking speed. It also is about how you deal with your environment (such as uneven pavement) and demands on your attention (such as traffic, other pedestrians, and street crossings).

In a new study, researchers assessed ways to measure complex walking tasks to learn more about early, subtle changes in walking. Their study was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

In their study, the researchers examined whether performance on complex walking tasks involving both physical and mental challenges predicted a higher risk for an inability to walk one-quarter mile (roughly four blocks). The researchers suspected that these complex walking tasks would be more strongly tied to the risk for mobility problems than simple walking.

The researchers studied information from the Health Aging and Body Composition (Health ABC) study, which enrolled black and white adults in Pittsburgh and Memphis from 1997 to 1998. The participants were 70 to 79 years old when they entered the study, and they had no difficulty walking a quarter mile or climbing 10 steps without resting.

In the study, participants walked on several different paths and were given several different challenges to measure their walking speed and their ability to cope with mental and physical tasks at the same time. Researchers then followed up with participants every six months to see if they had any difficulty walking one-quarter mile due to a health or physical problem.

Participants reported any mobility problems or disabilities every year at in-person visits. By the end of the eight-year follow-up, more than half of the participants had developed mobility disability, meaning they were unable to walk one-quarter mile. Almost 40 percent had developed chronic mobility disability that lasted at least two years.

This shows an old man's hands holding a walking stick
Participants reported any mobility problems or disabilities every year at in-person visits. The image is in the public domain.

Participants who reported having mobility disability were more likely to be female, have diabetes, be obese, have knee pain, and experience breathing difficulty. They also had more symptoms of depression.

The researchers concluded that slow walking speed under both usual-pace and complex conditions was associated with greater risk for developing mobility disability over the next eight years.

They also concluded that measuring your simple walking speed in the healthcare provider’s office may be enough for your provider to learn whether you might be at risk for future mobility problems.

About this neuroscience research article

American Geriatric Society
Media Contacts:
Daniel E. Trucil – American Geriatric Society
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Open access
“Associations of Usual Pace and Complex Task Gait Speeds With Incident Mobility Disability”. Andrea L. Rosso PhD, MPH; Andrea L. Metti PhD, MPH; Kimberly Faulkner PhD, MPH; Jennifer S. Brach PhD, PT; Stephanie A. Studenski MD, MPH; Mark Redfern PhD; Caterina Rosano MD, MPH.
Journal of American Geriatrics Society. doi:10.1111/jgs.16049


Associations of Usual Pace and Complex Task Gait Speeds With Incident Mobility Disability

To assess whether gait speed under complex conditions predicts long‐term risk for mobility disability as well as or better than usual‐pace gait speed.

Longitudinal cohort study.

Subsample of Health Aging and Body Composition study with follow‐up from 2002 to 2003 to 2010 to 2011, including 337 community‐dwelling adults (mean age = 78.5 years, 50.7% female, 26.1% black).

Associations of gait speed measured under usual‐pace, fast‐pace, dual‐task, and narrow‐path conditions with mobility disability, defined by any self‐reported difficulty walking ¼ mile assessed annually, were tested by Cox proportional hazard models adjusted for demographic and health characteristics. Models were fitted for each walking condition, and R2 statistics were used to compare predictive value across models. Models were repeated for persistent mobility disability, defined as at least two consecutive years of mobility disability.

Mobility disability occurred in 204 (60.5%) participants over the 8‐year follow‐up. There was a lower hazard of developing mobility disability with faster gait speed under all conditions. Hazard ratios, confidence intervals, and R2 of gait speed predicting mobility disability were similar across all four walking conditions (R2 range = 0.22‐0.27), but were strongest for dual‐task gait speed (hazard ratio [95% confidence interval], R2 of fully adjusted models = 0.81 [0.75‐0.88], 0.27). Results were comparable for persistent mobility disability (R2 range = 0.26‐0.28).


Slower gait speed under both usual‐pace and complex conditions may be a clinical indicator of future risk of mobility disability. These results support the call for increased use of gait speed measures in routine geriatric care.

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