Older adults who begin to exhibit both slower walking speed and a reduced ability to detect and respond to rapid changes in the environment (psychomotor speed) are at increased risk for mental health problems, a new study finds.

In a randomized prevention trial, investigators followed 213 individuals aged 60 and older who had mild depression or anxiety and one of the following risk factors: mild cognitive impairment, knee osteoarthritis or disabilities requiring home‐based care. Fully 54 participants developed major depression over 15 months. 

Participants who slowed down in both gait and psychomotor speed were more than twice as likely to experience new onset depression and/or anxiety when compared to participants with no slowing in either area. But slower gait or psychomotor speed alone did not increase risk, reported corresponding author Sarah T. Stahl, Ph.D., from the University of Pittsburgh Department of Psychiatry. 

“Evaluating both gait and psychomotor speed in older adults with medical comorbidities and sub‐syndromal depression may predict incident mental illness and inform prevention planning,” the authors concluded.

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