NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Walking is something we all more or less take for granted but surprisingly, how you walk could have major medical implications.
Even though most of us do it automatically, walking is actually a complex activity. Analyzing how people walk, known as their "gait," can predict brain problems years before other signs.
It's done with computers and motion sensors.
78-year-old Brenda Witters has been walking as part of a seven-year study on gait testing at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She's found out that how people walk is an important health indicator, especially if they're asked to do a mental task at the same time.
"A simple thing like reciting the alphabet becomes a chore when you're walking along with it and have to concentrate on two thing," Witters told CBS2's Dr. Max Gomez.
Researchers chronicle speed, posture, foot placement, and listen to the participant to determine if the brain is being strained by the physical and mental exercise.
"It gives us a lot of information about how well the brain is functioning, how it responds to challenges," Dr. Joe Verghese, Professor of Neurology and Medicine at Einstein College, said. "It also gives us a lot of insight into neurological diseases that can affect gait."
Researchers have found that diseases like Parkinson's, strokes, or dementia have distinct gait patterns which may be diagnosed or even predicted by analyzing a person's gait. Adding in a device that measures brain activity helps predict the possibility of falls.
"If you're over-activating the brain region it is an indication of inefficiency or some compensation that puts the individual at greater risk of an adverse outcome," professor of psychology and neurology Roee Holtzer said.
The theory is that walking is essentially an extension of brain function, so the Einstein researchers have seniors do brain training exercises to see if that improves their gait.
"Exercise has shown to have cognitive benefits but the other way around has not been looked into that much is what we are testing out," Dr. Verghese said.
Witters is cautiously optimistic.
"Sometimes I think I'm doing better and other times I think 'uh oh, you better watch it'," she said.
Bottom line, gait may help doctors predict who's at risk for problems from dementia to falling down -- a major health problem for seniors. Then, it's important to test whether brain training or gait training can delay or even prevent some of these problems.
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