02 June 2016

Best foot forward

Options Magazine Summer 2016: Q&A with Daniela Weber, research scholar in the IIASA World Population Program. She works with the Reassessing Aging from a Population Perspective project on developing new measures of aging as alternatives to chronological age.

Your research looks into walking speed, and how that relates to aging. But if you are interested in aging why not just ask people how old they are?

If you ask someone how old they are you just get a number, which omits a lot of important information. Asking someone how old they feel might get a little closer to what we want to find out, but then again that is very subjective—it might depend on their mood that day, for instance. Walking speed is a relatively objective measure that can give us extra information above and beyond the simple number of years lived. We see, for example, that in a group of people of exactly the same chronological age some will be “older” in terms of their walking speeds.

You found that certain lifestyle factors influenced walking speeds. What were they?

My recent paper looked at older adults, aged 60 and over, and we found that socioeconomic status was a key influence. Manual laborers tended to have slower walking speeds than non‑manual workers, even if they were the same chronological age. There was also a strong effect of education. Those who were more highly educated—even if their education was a long time ago—tended to walk faster than people with less education.

Do you know why level of education would be related to walking speed?

I think it is likely to be because more educated people tend to be more aware of their health. As a result they might take up a sport or do some kind of training during their leisure time. They might also go to the doctor for more regular check‑ups. All this leads to a person who is healthier in old age, and therefore has a faster walk.

It seems odd that non‑manual workers walk faster. Doesn’t the active nature of a manual job improve walking speed?

I think that it might be the result of overdoing strenuous physical work. In the prime of their lives a manual laborer might be stronger than a non‑manual worker, but it takes its toll in later life. Another possible explanation is that the environment you work in as a manual worker harms your health more. Think of the paint fumes that a decorator might be exposed to, for instance. Occupation is also closely related to education and so that might have effects here too.

How did you become interested in this field?

Aging has always fascinated me. Even within Europe, for example, there are countries that appear very economically or socially similar and then we look at how they age and we see big differences. Why is that? I also like the fact that I work at the border of different disciplines: aging research has aspects that are medical, demographic, and socioeconomic. That is also what’s great about working at IIASA, there are so many different topics being studied, and it’s interesting to investigate the overlaps between fields.

Interview by Daisy Brickhill

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Last edited: 21 August 2017


Daniela Weber

Research Scholar

World Population

T +43(0) 2236 807 232


Related research program

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
Schlossplatz 1, A-2361 Laxenburg, Austria
Phone: (+43 2236) 807 0 Fax:(+43 2236) 71 313