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HYANNIS – In the business world, a firm handshake conveys confidence and competence, while a limp one is seen as a weakness. In the medical world, the strength of your grip has an even more important role than determining personality. It can reveal how healthy or unhealthy you are.
Recent studies show that as you age, grip strength can be a measure of how likely you are to develop diseases such as cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart disease.
A study of more than 500,000 people ages 40 to 69, showed that weak grip strength is strongly associated with a wide range of health outcomes, including all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease and cancer. Additionally, a 2016 systematic review of 34 studies of people 60 and older found that “handgrip strength has a predictive validity for decline in cognition, mobility, functional status and mortality” in older populations.
But before you go out and buy squeeze balls to beef up your grip, it’s important to realize that while your grip strength is a great way for your doctor to do risk screening, it’s not something you need to work on independently.
“Grip strength usually ties into a healthier overall lifestyle and there would be no benefit to trying to improve your grip strength,” explained certified hand therapist Jeffrey August, OTRL, at Cape Cod Hospital Rehabilitation Center. “It’s a good screening tool, but it’s not a test that anyone would work to master. If you have weak grip strength, it can be a predictor of other things, but just improving your grip strength is not going to give you other benefits or improve your overall health.”
What does give you benefit is exercise in general, he said. August recommends that people regularly do cardio exercises and lift weights. Both of those things will prevent weak grip strength and the associated risks it causes.
“Generally speaking, a person’s overall health keeps their grip strength high if they are active and exercise,” he said.
For senior patients who are unable to do strenuous exercise, he recommends exercise classes at local senior centers that can be done while sitting in a chair.
“You can increase your bone mass a lot with a little bit of exercise,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be going to the gym or lifting heavy weights. Just lifting two- and three-pound weights two to three times a week for 20 minutes can increase bone density by 25 to 30 percent.”
It would be rare for a healthy person who exercises regularly to have weak grip strength, he said. Generally speaking, it is a more sedentary person, who is usually elderly. Women, specifically, are at risk because the generation of women born from 1940s through early 1960s were not especially athletic. Today’s younger generation will also be at risk later on because so many of our jobs keep us sedentary.
“As a society we just don’t get that everyday general exercise that we used to, that would keep us fit and keep down the risk of heart disease,” he said. “Now we do so little of that so the grip strength is just another way to assess people’s health.”
The test itself is very simple. While standing or sitting, patients hold their elbow at 90 degrees and squeeze a device called a dynamometer to reveal the amount of force applied. The results are standardized according to age. A younger person would naturally have a better grip strength than an older one, in most cases, so the results take that into consideration. As people age, they automatically lose muscle mass at a rate of about three to five percent per decade.
“When you look at the scores, they have age-specific norms,” August said. “It’s a great test. It should be used more as an initial test to get an idea where patients are at because it helps you look at the big picture.”