Frailty factor: How well you walk when you’re older may depend on one gene


Losing mobility and becoming increasingly frail is a common issue for many older adults. While many seniors try to keep frailty at bay through diet and exercise, a study finds who does and doesn’t become infirm may come down to one gene. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health say a gene controlling dopamine levels in the brain can dictate how well an elderly person walks as they age.

“Most people think about dopamine’s role in mobility in the context of Parkinson’s disease, but not in normal aging,” says senior author Caterina Rosano in a university release. “We were curious to see if a genetic predisposition to produce more or less dopamine was related to mobility in individuals who had some level of frailty, yet did not have dementia, parkinsonism, or any other neurological condition.”

The study reveals a gene called COMT breaks down dopamine to control its levels within the brain. Researchers looked at more than 500 adults over the age of 65, comparing their levels of frailty. This is a common part of the aging process which includes declines in physiological function, poor adjustment to outside stressors, and a tendency to develop other health issues. The study excluded adults who were either on dopamine-related medications or had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

“We found that in older, frail adults, those who have a high-dopamine genotype are more likely to maintain a faster gait and may be more resilient to mobility disablement as they age.” 

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