Bronx, NY—Gait performance is one measure used to determine whether older adults can live independently and maintain their health. But what about the ability to perform other tasks while walking, such as talking?

A new study published ahead of print by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society suggests that polypharmacy can have a detrimental effect on elderly patients’ ability to do that.

Albert Einstein College of Medicine researchers looked at how polypharmacy, defined for purposes of the study as taking multiple—usually five or more—medications, affected walking while talking in 482 adults aged 65 years and older. Participants, most of them in their early 70s, all were enrolled in the “Central Control of Mobility in Aging” study, which examines what changes to the brain and central nervous system occur as people get older and how those changes can affect gait.

To determine which patients took enough medications to qualify as polypharmacy, the study team confirmed prescriptions, as well as herbal and other OTC supplements for the study participants. They found that 34% used five or more medications during the study period, from June 2011 to February 2016, and that 10% used more than eight medications.

At the same time, detailed examinations were administered to the study participants to assess their physical health, mental well-being, and mobility at the start of the study and at yearly follow-up appointments. Those in the polypharmacy group were more likely to have a range of health issues, including high blood pressure, heart failure, diabetes, and past acute myocardial infarction. Those older adults also were more overweight and more likely to have fallen in the past year than the cohort in the nonpolypharmacy group.

Walking speed was one of the functions evaluated among the participants, none of whom used walking aides, such as canes or walkers, or monitors. The older adults were asked to walk at their normal pace on a special 20-foot-long walkway, and to walk while talking.

Even accounting for their chronic health problems, a history of falls, and other issues, results indicate that participants in the polypharmacy group had a slower gait than those in the nonpolypharmacy group.

For those using eight or more medications, walking speed when walking while talking was slower.

“These results suggest an association between polypharmacy and locomotion that medical comorbidities only partly explained,” study authors point out.

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