White Matter Change Linked to Balance and Movement Problems
> 3/18/2008 1:46:40 PM

Preoccupied with the looming threat of dementia, few people pay attention to the many other, less dramatic, ways that the brain can degrade over time. Researchers from the Leukoaraiosis and Disability (LADIS) Study are trying to examine and draw attention to the connection between white matter changes and disability in the elderly. One of their studies, on the link between white matter and movement, reveals valuable findings in the March issue of Neurology.

The LADIS researchers followed 639 non-disabled elderly citizens for three years. Subjects were periodically evaluated for walking speed and balance, and then MRI scanned. The subjects were divided into three groups depending on the extent of white matter changes detected by the MRI: mild, moderate, and severe.

Walking and balancing scores strongly correlated with the extent of white matter change, with those in the severe group approximately twice as likely to receive abnormally poor scores. These low scores do not just signify decreased mobility-- they indicate grave health risks. Falls in old age can easily break bones and send the body into a crisis from which it never recovers.

The correlation of white matter change with movement and balance problems opens up a number of practical options. The balance test (timing how long you can stand on one leg) is so simple that anyone can use it as an indicator of possible brain degeneration. Knowing that white matter specifically is the problem allows doctors to narrow their search for treatment.

Even if they do not find a medication that slows white matter degeneration, there are some natural ways to stave off problems. The LADIS study found that the most physically active subjects showed the least white matter change. By itself, this might only mean that those with cognitive impairments are not as inclined to engage in physical activities, but many other studies have shown that exercise can slow decline and even build new brain cells. This suggests that seniors who notice a decline in movement ability, but have no specific neurological disease, can improve their performance by becoming more active. While it might seem that staying off your feet is the best way to prevent falls, walking more frequently looks like the better protection.

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