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Slower walking speed in older adults has been shown to be a predictor of disability, admission to a nursing home and even death, the researchers noted. Delaying the age-related decline in walking speed could help extend the number of years that seniors can live independently.
The team, from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., analyzed U.S. National Institute on Aging data on more than 2,300 men and women, aged 70 to 79, whose walking speed was tested annually for four years.
"As people age, they are more likely to gain fat in and around their muscles, and we speculated that gaining fat in the leg muscle itself would be related to slowed walking speed," study author Kristen Beavers said in a Wake Forest news release.
She and her colleagues found that increases in thigh fat and decreases in thigh muscle were significant and independent predictors of declines in walking speed.
Participants who gained the most thigh fat and lost the most thigh muscle had the greatest risk of suffering a notable decline in walking speed, according to the study, which was published online Jan. 30 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
The results showed that preventing age-related decline in walking speed isn't just about preserving thigh muscle, but also about preventing thigh fat gain, Beavers said.
Future studies should determine whether efforts to reduce thigh fat, increase thigh muscle or both can improve seniors' walking speed and prolong their ability to live independently, she added.
-- Robert Preidt
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