So are slow walkers doomed to an early grave? Absolutely not, Studenski said. "There is clearly a group of people who walk slowly and live a long time," she said. "It's not a death sentence."
On the other hand, there's also no evidence that you'll live longer if you boost your walking speed, she said.
Even so, a slow gait can be a warning sign. A walking speed of 2.5 miles an hour is very good, she said, whereas 1.6 miles an hour or less could be an indication of medical problems.
Long walks aren't necessary: It's possible to gauge someone's gait by timing them as they walk just a few feet, she added.
Dr. Matteo Cesari, a geriatric specialist in Rome, pointed out in a commentary in the journal that the report found that the ability of walking speed to predict life span is only "statistically fair." Still, Cesari said, the findings are important because they give doctors another measuring tool.
"For sure, physicians get a pretty good sense of their patients by just looking at them, but this evaluation is still subjective and not based on a standardized evaluation," Cesari said. "In fact, the way one physician judges the overall health status of his or her patients may not the same as another one. By testing gait speed using the standards promoted by this study, every physician will be able to reach the same conclusion about the overall health status of a patient."
The U.S. National Institutes of Health has more on healthy aging.
SOURCES: Stephanie Anne Studenski, M.D., M.P.H., professor, geriatric medicine, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Pittsburgh; Matteo Cesari, M.D., Ph.D., geriatrician, Biomedical University, Rome; Jan. 5, 2010, Journal of the American Medical Asso
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