Walking pace may predict risk of death in cancer survivors

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Cancer survivors who walk at a slow pace may be putting themselves in greater danger than their peers who move much faster. A recent study finds the risk of death increases among cancer patients who move at a slow pace. Researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis say that while the act of walking is not the cause of death, the slower pace appears to have a link to death among survivors of more than nine different types of cancerous tumors.

Cancer survivors are living longer than ever – and that’s good news. However, it’s important to improve our understanding of how the diagnosis and treatment of a broad range of cancers may affect walking pace during survivorship — a potentially modifiable risk factor — which could lead to new treatment and rehabilitation strategies to improve the health of these patients,” says first author Elizabeth A. Salerno, Ph.D., an assistant professor of surgery in the Division of Public Health Sciences, in a university release.

For the study, the team investigated 233,000 participants between 50 and 71 years-old who signed up for the National Institutes of Health-American Association of Retired Persons (NIH-AARP) Diet and Health Study. Participants completed surveys about their walking pace and listed any disabilities related to walking, as well as overall health. Researchers continued to track these individuals for several years after the initial surveys.

Which cancers have a link to walking speed?

Study authors also monitored a group of healthy participants who served as a control. Results show that 42 percent of cancer survivors reported walking at a slower pace and 24 percent of cancer survivors were also disabled. Interestingly, cancer survivors that reported walking at the slowest paces had increased their risk of death by twice as much as those who walked at the fastest rates.

The results remained constant for those diagnosed with colon, rectal, breast, oral, prostate cancer, melanoma, respiratory, urinary, and Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Researchers also discovered a strong association between death and mobility disability among all cancer types including endocrine, ovarian, endometrial, and even cancers of the stomach.

Cancer survivors who walked the slowest were also 10 times more likely to die from any cause compared to those who not diagnosed with cancer and walked the fastest. Survivors that had disabilities with motor movements were five times more likely to die compared to those without disabilities or a cancer diagnosis. Many survivors reported disabling effects of cancer since most had difficulties walking prior to treatment.

“To our knowledge, this analysis is the first to explore the relationship between cancer, walking pace, and subsequent mortality in 15 different cancer types. It’s possible that slow walking may be due to cancer itself, adverse effects of treatment, or changes in lifestyle. There is still much to be learned about these complex relationships, but our results highlight the importance of monitoring and even targeting walking pace after cancer,” Salerno concludes.

This study appears in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.