Improving ambulatory function in older cancer patients may increase survival odds, the results of a new study suggest.

Investigators analyzed health data from more than 30,000 cancer survivors and 200,000 individuals who had never received a cancer diagnosis, with a median age of 62 years. A broad range of cancer types was represented. Researchers found several associations between cancer and poor ambulatory function, and ambulatory function and subsequent death:

  • Cancer survivors were 42% more likely to report walking at the slowest pace compared with individuals without a cancer diagnosis;
  • Cancer survivors also had a 24% greater risk of mobility disability after researchers adjusted for demographics, health status, cancer type and body mass index; and 
  • Lower ambulatory function was tied to several cancer types, with the strongest associations for survivors of respiratory or oral cancers.

Notably, walking pace was linked to increased mortality in both cancer survivors and those without cancer, reported Elizabeth Salerno, Ph.D., MPH, of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Cancer survivors with the slowest pace had a more than 10-fold increased risk of death when compared with individuals without a cancer diagnosis who reported a brisk walking pace; those without cancer with the slowest walking pace had a more than threefold increased risk of death.

“Our findings suggest that functional health may be adversely affected by a broad range of cancer diagnoses and may be an important determinant for survival,” Salerno said. “[O]ur results highlight the potential importance of monitoring, and even targeting, ambulatory function after cancer for survival benefits, particularly in older cancer survivors.”

The study was conducted at the National Cancer Institute. Full findings were published in  the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.