LAXENBURG, Austria — Can’t get that pickle jar open no matter how hard you try? It may seem trivial, but new research out of Austria reports weak handgrip strength may signal more serious health issues.
Researchers say muscle strength has been a fairly accurate indicator of mortality for years. Meanwhile, prior studies have associated weak handgrip strength specifically (even among younger adults) with heart problems, lung issues, and a lower life expectancy.
Now, scientists from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis report measuring handgrip strength is a quick and inexpensive means of assessing overall muscle strength. Additionally, the research team has developed a more comprehensive approach to measuring handgrip strength.
Study authors even developed a series of “cut off points” designed to help measure grip strength more easily. Importantly, these cut off points also account for the correlation between handgrip strength with gender and body height, as well as the natural age-related decline in handgrip strength that everyone experiences.
The team set out to ascertain exactly what level of handgrip weakness should prompt concern from a doctor. Their work established standardized thresholds directly linking handgrip strength with remaining life expectancy. In theory, this provides doctors with another means of identifying patients with an increased risk of early death.
“In general, handgrip strength depends on gender, age, and the height of a person. Our task was to find the threshold related to handgrip strength that would signal a practitioner to do further examinations if a patient’s handgrip strength is below this threshold. It is similar to measuring blood pressure. When the level of blood pressure is outside of a particular range, the doctor can either decide to prescribe a particular medicine or to send the patient to a specialist for further examination,” explains IIASA researcher Sergei Scherbov in a university release.
Even a slightly weak grip could be a bad sign
Typically, people can measure their handgrip strength by squeezing a dynamometer. For this project, patients had to perform two squeezes with each hand, with researchers only using their best performance for the measurement. This test is actually more delicate than most would assume. For instance, the measured strength values depend on whether the person is sitting or standing while squeezing.
Instead of just comparing participants’ grip performances with a healthy reference population like earlier studies, researchers compared each participant’s grip with individuals who were comparable in terms of sex, age, and body height.
The results of that review suggest an increase in mortality risk at a grip threshold that is more sensitive than the level established in previous studies. For instance, the study found that a handgrip strength just slightly below the average of a comparable population (taking into account a person’s sex, age, and body height) “is indicative of health conditions leading to earlier death.”
So, a stronger grip is a good thing, right?
Interestingly, the relationship between handgrip strength and mortality may not work both ways. A stronger handgrip in comparison to others of the same age, sex, and body height did not appear to reduce mortality risk.
“Handgrip strength is a cheap and easy to perform test, but it may help with early diagnosis of health problems and other underlying health conditions. Monitoring the handgrip strength of the elderly (and in fact middle-aged people) may provide great benefits for the public health of aging populations. Our findings make it clear that handgrip strength is a very precise and sensitive measure of underlying health conditions. Therefore, we suggest it to be used as a screening tool in medical practice,” notes Nadia Steiber from the University of Vienna.
“It is important to point out that we are not suggesting that people should train handgrip strength in particular to decrease mortality risks. Most likely, if someone improves their handgrip strength through exercises, there will be no or very little impact on their overall health. However, low handgrip strength may serve as an indicator of disability because it reflects a low muscle strength, which is associated with a higher risk of death. A healthy lifestyle and exercise are still the best approaches to sustain good health or to improve it in the long term,” concludes Sonja Spitzer, a postdoctoral researcher at the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital and the University of Vienna.
The study is published in BMJ Open.