Whether we like to admit it or not, as we age, we lose muscle mass and our immune system weakens, making us more vulnerable to illness. But there is a simple and proven biomarker to assess how fast we are aging and whether we need to take steps to improve our health and wellness.
Multiple research studies have shown that grip strength can serve as a strong predictor of mortality and a vital health indicator to predict overall muscle strength and how well a person is aging – including a long-range study published in 2022 which used a standard measuring device called a dynamometer to evaluate grip strength in a sample of 1,275 men and women. Grip strength can herald risk for chronic disease and be a sign of longevity, as people with good grip strength tend to be healthier, age more slowly and have stronger immune systems to fend off disease and illness.
Kim Durst, PT, DPT, clinical director of physical therapy Axis Hand and Physical Therapy, described grip strength as a reliable and validated way to gauge your health.
“So it’s basically a good indicator of someone’s overall muscle strength and muscle mass,” noted Durst. “It’s quick and it’s easy.”
Kimberly Young, M.D., an orthopedic and hand surgeon with Roper St. Francis Healthcare, said grip strength and muscle mass are important for social independence and safety and mobility, including performing basic daily tasks such as opening jars: “It allows you stay independent.”
Diminished grip strength can be a sign of overall muscle fatigue and is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. A 2015 study published in the medical journal The Lancet that assessed the value of grip strength found it to be a stronger predictor of cardiovascular death than blood pressure.
Consider grip strength to be like the canary in the coal mine. Since there is a correlation between grip strength and muscle mass, a weak grip strength signals that you may need to increase your general physical activity. It evaluates your age-related changes.
“In the majority of people, if their grip strength is weak, then their overall fitness and overall health will be weak,” Dr. Young commented.
Additionally, as we get older, we experience something called sarcopenia, a loss of muscle mass and function that is part of the normal aging process.
We lose 3% to 5% of our muscle mass each decade after the age of 30,” explained Durst. “So grip strength is a measure of that loss of overall strength.”
The 2022 study on grip strength revealed that it provides a good measure of a person’s chronological age – birth age – versus their epigenetic age – biological or cellular age. People with weaker grip strength were found to have a higher epigenetic age, making them more susceptible to illness and death. Grip strength, as a measure of muscle mass, can further indicate how well a person can recover from diseases or surgery.
Grip strength generally weakens as people get older, typically starting to decline around age 50. But other factors affect grip strength, including leading a sedentary lifestyle, as well as variables such as malnutrition, whether someone has suffered a stroke or other cardiovascular ailment or if they have arthritis, said Dr. Young. Genetics can also play a role.
“Some of it is genetics. A lot of it is lifestyle,” stated Durst.
Since weak grip strength is an indicator of overall health, if you’re struggling to perform basic tasks like opening jars, this could be a warning sign that your muscles are deteriorating. If you’re experiencing significant functional decline in your hands, then you should be evaluated for underlying health issues, Dr. Young advised.
Additional sources: pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25982160/; newsroom.clevelandclinic.org/2023/03/28/how-weak-grip-strength-plays-a-role-in-aging/; washingtonpost.com/wellness/2023/01/18/grip-strength-muscles-aging
EXERCISES TO IMPROVE GRIP STRENGTH
While you can’t do anything about genetics, you can control the lifestyle part of the aging equation. Exercises to improve grip strength abound, including squeezing a stress ball with your hand or lifting light weights such as 2-pound to four-pound dumbbells.
You can do something as simple as taking the stairs instead of the elevator. For sports or other physical activities, engage in something that is weight-bearing or provides some resistance, such swimming, pickleball, tennis, golf, yoga or fitness classes. All these exercises will help address your overall muscle mass, which impacts grip strength.
Dr. Kimberly Young, an orthopedic and hand surgeon with Roper St. Francis Healthcare, emphasized that working the intrinsic muscles – smaller muscles in the hand – is important for grip strength and strengthening muscles. Examples of intrinsic muscle exercises include placing a rubber band around your fingers and thumb and spreading your fingers away from the thumb or pinching and squeezing a putty ball.
Even 10 minutes of daily exercise offers benefits, but it’s paramount to your overall fitness to avoid a sedentary lifestyle, maintain a regular exercise routine and actively participate in some form of strength and weight-bearing pursuit multiple times a week. Shunning activity bodes poorly for your future health outlook if you aspire to age well.
“Anytime you’re staying active, you’re going to improve your grip strength,” said Dr. Young.
“The biggest thing is to keep moving,” Durst added. “Activity is the antithesis of aging.”
By Colin McCandless