September is Blood Cancer Awareness Month in the U.S. Although these cancers can affect Americans in any age group, older adults are disproportionately struck by blood cancers including leukemia, multiple myeloma and lymphoma, especially people over age 75.
A recent study conducted at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston has potentially identified a simple way to get critical information about older blood cancer patients’ health. They found that gait speed – measured by how slow or fast a person is able to walk four meters, or about 13 feet – is a strong predictor of unplanned hospital visits as well as overall survival, regardless of age, cancer stage or treatment type.
The study included about 450 adults ages 75 and older diagnosed with blood cancers, who had initial consultations at clinics affiliated with Dana-Farber. They each completed several screenings for cognition, frailty, gait, and grip strength.
Walking speed was shown to be the best independent predictor of how the patients would fare. In fact, data showed that for every 0.1 meter per second decrease in walking speed, the risk of dying, unexpectedly going to the hospital, or ending up in the emergency room increased by 22%, 33%, and 34%, respectively.
The researchers concluded that monitoring gait speed not only helps to recognize individuals who may have worse outcomes; it also identifies patients who are in much better shape than expected based on their age alone. They said their results show that gait speed should be routinely measured during medical assessments of older patients with blood cancer, and it should be tracked over time to guide treatment plans as well.
“The slower someone walks, the higher their risk of problems,” said Dr. Jane A. Driver, a co-director of the Dana Farber Older Adult Hematologic Malignancy Program and the study’s senior author. “There is an unmet need for brief screening tests for frailty that can easily fit into clinic workflow and predict important clinical outcomes. This test can be done in less than a minute and takes no longer than measuring blood pressure or other vital signs.”
The study was recently published in the journal Blood.