Certain Navigational Issues During Your Daily Walk Could Be a Sign of Early Alzheimer’s

Having a regular walking routine as we age can provide big benefits, including improving heart and bone health, maintaining mobility, and possibly helping prolong independence. New research finds our behaviors while walking may also give us a clue about future cognitive issues.

Researchers from University College London recently investigated how path integration plays a role in Alzheimer’s. Path integration (PI) is a process that helps us keep track of our position through distance traveled and objects encountered along the way. In the research, published in Current Biology, the researchers used a PI model to see how navigation is impacted in older adults with mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s biomarkers. They found that for this group, there was a pronounced difficulty in turning while walking.

Senior man walking with grandkids

This basic test could help provide clues for Alzheimer’s earlier on, which would help with more timely diagnosis and treatment. The team says they’re working on ways to make navigational tests, which can be a bit complicated, more adaptable to a doctor’s office.

Dr. Andrea Castegnaro, co-first author from the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, explains, “We aim to develop practical tests that can be easily integrated into clinical settings, considering common constraints such as limited space and time. Traditional navigation tests often have requirements that are challenging to meet in a clinical environment. Our research focuses on specific aspects of navigation that are more adaptable to these constraints.

“We are designing these tests to be both quick and comprehensive, aiming to collect sufficient data for a reliable diagnosis in a time-efficient manner, thereby increasing the likelihood of their widespread adoption.”

The test in this research involved 31 younger people, 36 cognitively healthy older participants, and 43 people with mild cognitive impairment, some of whom had Alzheimer’s biomarkers. They were given virtual reality goggles and asked to complete a navigational task. This involved walking a route with numbered cones and two straight legs connected with a turn. They also had to walk back to the starting point without assistance.

Legs of a man walking

This was done in three different environments: an unchanged environment, one in which the ground details were replaced with a plain texture, and one in which the all the landmarks were removed.

The researchers found that those with cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s biomarkers tended to overestimate the turns on the route and had more variability in their sense of direction than their cognitively healthy peers. This wasn’t the case in those with mild cognitive impairment without Alzheimer’s biomarkers, which indicates the behavior could be specific to Alzheimer’s.

The team says that more research is needed to confirm their findings, but these navigational issues could lead to a better understanding of certain neural pathways related to Alzheimer’s and may help focus on completely different behaviors that can help with a diagnosis.

Dr. Castegnaro explains, “Cognitive assessments are still needed to understand when the first cognitive impairments develop, and when it comes to existing spatial memory tests used in clinics, those often rely on verbal competence. Our tests aim to offer a more practical tool that doesn’t rely on language or cultural background.”

Senior man and son going for a walk

Past research has found that other types of movements may provide Alzheimer’s clues before cognitive issues become clear. You can read about that here.

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