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Walking and Talking: Inability to multitask decreases as we age

Walking and talking seems like a simple task in itself. However as we get progressively older our ability to multitask diminishes, a new study found. 


Middle-aged adults may experience lower abilities to multitask, such as walking and talking, up to a decade before the standard retirement age of 65, according to a study published in Lancet Healthy Longevity. The decline in doing two or more activities at once becomes more noticeable for adults aged 55 onwards.


The study found that the decline is largely caused by cognition and hidden brain functions. It is not caused by changes in the physical function.


“Our results suggest that in middle age, poor dual-task walking performance might be an indicator of accelerated brain aging or an otherwise presymptomatic neurodegenerative condition,” said  author Junhong Zhou, HMS instructor in medicine at Hebrew SeniorLife.


Out of nearly 1,000 participants 640 completed gait and cognitive assessments according to the researchers. Adults who fell into an age range between 40-64 were relatively steady. The problem was when they asked participants to perform more tasks at the same time while walking. 


“ However, even in this relatively healthy cohort, when we asked participants to walk and perform a mental arithmetic task at the same time, we were able to observe subtle yet important changes in gait starting in the middle of the sixth decade of life,” said Zhou.  


Even though the study showcases a correlation between dual task walking diminishing with advance age. Not all people fit this group.


“We observed a portion of participants over the age of 60 who performed the dual task test as well as participants aged 50 or even younger. This means that dual-task walking performance does not necessarily decline as we get older, and that some individuals appear more resistant to the effects of aging,” Zhou said.


A simple test of dual task walking is able to uncover early age changes in the brain function that may signify an increased risk of developing dementia later in life.


“What we believe is that the ability to handle this stress and adequately maintain performance in both tasks is a critical brain function that tends to be diminished in older age. Our study is important because it has discovered that changes in this type of brain resilience occur much earlier than previously believed,” said Zhou.

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