Background: Gait disturbances are among the more common symptoms in the elderly. Reduced mobility markedly impairs quality of life, and the associated falls increase morbidity and mortality.
Methods: Review of the literature based on a selective search (PubMed) on the terms "gait," "gait disorder," "locomotion," "elderly," "geriatric" and "ageing" (2000-11/2009) and the findings of the authors' own studies on gait changes in old age and on the functional brain imaging of gait control.
Results: Gait disturbances in the elderly are often of multifactorial origin. The relevant pathogenetic factors include sensory deficits (visual, vestibular, somatosensory), neurodegenerative processes (cortical, extrapyramidal motor, cerebellar), toxic factors (medications, alcohol), and anxiety (primary or concerning falls). A clinically oriented classification of gait disorders is proposed, which, on the basis of the characterization of gait and the accompanying clinical findings, enables identification of the etiological factors and points the way to rational therapy. Current research topics in the study of gait disturbances are also discussed, including quantitative gait analysis, interactions between locomotion and cognition (dual tasking), and functional imaging approaches.
Conclusions: The evaluation of elderly patients whose chief complaint is a gait disturbance should be directed toward the identification of specific deficits. This is the prerequisite for rational therapy, even when the problem is of multifactorial origin. The preservation of mobility is important in itself, and also because the ability to walk is closely correlated with cognitive performance.