By Diana Barnes-Brown for Knee1
For those of us who have spent time around the elderly, watching balance and walking difficulties known as “gait irregularities” is probably a familiar occurrence – many older individuals often walk slower than younger adults, with uneven or unsteady steps seen as characteristic of old age.
| NFTs and the substantia nigra are also involved with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Here are some common early symptoms of each.|
Trembling or shaking of hands, arms, or body
Stiffness of limbs or trunk (also known as “rigidity”)
Difficulty walking or standing due to difficulty maintaining gait or balance
General slowness of movement (also known as bradykinesia)
Mild forgetfulness, behaving absent-mindedly at first
Difficulty completing simple mental tasks, such as basic math, making lists, or keeping track of belongings
Repeating the same story, asking the same question, or making the same comment over and over
Getting lost in familiar surroundings or at home
Forgetting how to do activities that once seemed familiar and easy, such as making repairs, playing cards, or cooking well-known recipes.
Neglecting basic components of personal care and hygiene, such as bathing, changing clothes, and brushing teeth or hair.
Recently, medical researchers uncovered some surprising news about gait irregularities in the elderly. Certain brain lesions known as neurofibrillary tangles (NFTs), already known to be present in patients of Alzheimer’s disease, are seen in older persons with gait irregularities— regardless of whether they display signs of Alzheimer’s symptoms like mental wasting or dementia.
The NFTs that were linked to gait irregularities were confined to a specific region of the brain called the substantia nigra. This region of the brain is also associated with Parkinson’s disease.
Dr. Julie A. Schneider, lead author of the study, was not available for comment, but noted in the study write-up that the greater the number of NFTs an older patient had in the substantia nigra, the greater their gait irregularity.
To conduct the study, Dr. Schneider and colleagues at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago examined Parkinson’s-like features and NFTs in a total of 86 deceased elderly persons who had gait irregularities but not Parkinson’s. They found that NFTs were present in 78 percent of the persons examined, and often in great quantity — the average number of tangles per person was over 1500. This means there is a very high correlation between the presence of NFTs and the presence of gait irregularities in the study. The study was adjusted to rule out other variables for the sake of statistical soundness and accuracy.
The important implications of these findings are many. First, as the authors note, “there is a paucity of studies examining substantia nigra NFTs and their relation to motor function in older persons.” Providing research of this kind may provide new insight in the search for connections between the brain and humans’ capacity for successful motion.
The findings also indicate that the scope of symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s disease may be wider than previously thought. Perhaps some currently unidentified forms of Alzheimer’s disease may show up as balance and gait difficulties without the dementia traditionally associated with the disease.
Finally, learning more about NFTs in relation to gait irregularities in the elderly may make it possible for scientists to develop targeted treatments to deal with physical unsteadiness and dangerous falls in old age.