A slow walking speed may be a sign of emerging mobility problems in seniors, investigators report.

In a study of 337 adults in their seventies, participants who had a slow walking speed under both normal and more complicated conditions were at greater risk of losing mobility abilities during the next eight years.

At the study’s start, all participants could walk one-quarter mile (about four blocks) or climb ten steps without resting. After eight years, almost half were no longer able to walk that far, and nearly 40% had a chronic mobility disability that had lasted at least two years. Those who had a faster gait speed at the start were at a lower risk for this outcome under all conditions. 

About 31% of the Medicare population has a mobility disability. Early identification of those most at risk could help reduce mobility loss over time, wrote the study’s lead author Andrea L. Rosso, Ph.D. In other studies, evidence has shown that usual‐pace gait speed is a powerful predictor of many health outcomes in older adults, including falls, hospitalization, and mortality, Rosso reported.

The study was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.