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How Your Grip Strength Can Predict Your Health

Our primary care doctors in Delray Beach run many tests on our patients to gauge the state of their health. But recent research shows that one of the most effective measures of your overall health is the strength in your hands.

Grip strength can be used as a biomarker (an indication of medical status) that can even predict the length of your life, according to several studies. One study even found that grip strength was a better predictor of death or cardiovascular disease than blood pressure, according to Harvard Health Publishing.

The most recent study, published in The Journal of Cachexia, Sarcopenia, and Muscle in November, found that those with weaker grip strength showed signs of more rapid aging in their DNA, which may explain the correlation between grip strength and health. Specifically, the weaker your grip strength, the older your biological age, according to the researchers.

Declining Strength in Seniors

Along with so many other abilities, grip strength declines with age. Studies show that for each year after middle age, we lose muscle mass at a rate of one percent, culminating in a loss of half our muscle mass by the age of 80.

In addition, various conditions and diseases can accelerate the loss of muscle, including obesity, an inflammatory diet, smoking, and lack of exercise.

Numerous other studies have shown a correlation between grip strength and various health outcomes.

One study looked at over 500,000 participants ages 40 to 69 years in the U.K.’s Biobank database. Researchers found that a grip-strength measurement of fewer than 57 pounds for men and less than 35 pounds for women correlated with a greater risk of death and certain serious illnesses, including heart disease, cancer, and serious respiratory illnesses.

The study also found that grip strength was associated with other issues such as cognitive impairment, sleep disturbances, and depression.

“Grip strength is easy to measure and may be useful in helping to predict future disease,” senior study author Stuart Gray of the University of Glasgow, told Reuters Health by email.

“Grip strength showed a stronger association with cardiovascular disease than blood pressure and physical activity,” he added, “which was a bit of a surprise. It highlights nicely just how strong the association is.”

Latest Findings

The new study on how DNA is impacted by grip strength was conducted by researchers at Michigan Medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

“Grip strength is often called a biomarker of aging,” said the study’s lead author, Mark Peterson, Ph.D., M.S, in a statement. “But the biological context for why it’s so predictive of positive and negative outcomes during aging hasn’t really been clear.”

Using three DNA-based “age acceleration clocks” that provide estimates based on a molecular biomarker, the researchers measured the biological age of 1,274 middle-aged and older adults over 10 years. The results revealed an association between lower grip strength and biological age.

Calling muscle weakness “the new smoking,” Peterson added, “We’ve known that muscular strength is a predictor of longevity, and that weakness is a powerful indicator of disease and mortality, but, for the first time, we have found strong evidence of a biological link between muscle weakness and actual acceleration in biological age.”

Not Too Late

Just because your grip strength is lower than it should be, does that mean you’re doomed to a series of illnesses and an early death?

Absolutely not.

“One of the key things people can do to maintain health and improve—or at the very least maintain—muscle strength—is to exercise,” Adam Taylor, professor, and director of the Clinical Anatomy Learning Centre at Lancaster University, wrote in The Conversation.

“The body has a ‘use it or lose it’ approach to tissues, with muscles being broken down if not used. For instance, it’s well known that getting patients walking after surgery prevents loss of muscle and bone and reduces their length of stay in hospital.”

A recent meta-analysis of 16 studies covering over 1.5 million subjects in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM) found that muscle-strengthening activities were associated with almost a 20 percent lower risk of cancer, diabetes, lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, and death from any cause.

Strength training also helps increase bone density, which lowers the risk of falls and fractures. Especially in older adults, when coupled with aerobic activity, it can help maintain independence and brain function.

Two Components

According to Cleveland Clinic physical therapist, Gary Calabrese, DPT, no matter how old you are, you can combat muscle loss. Exercise builds strength, but nutrition is the other key.

“You can’t just exercise and not eat properly and you can’t just eat properly and not exercise,” Calabrese says.

He recommends a daily intake of .45 grams of protein per pound of body weight. So a 140-pound person should consume 63 grams of protein a day (140 x 0.45), from such sources as milk, cheese, eggs, poultry, fish, peanuts, and beans.

He also warns middle- and older-age adults against low-carb diets, because you need carbohydrates to provide the energy source to enable exercise.

The other element to rebuilding muscle strength is a combination of aerobic and strength-training exercises, he says.  Consider consulting a physical therapist or exercise physiologist to design a program tailored to your abilities.

Just be sure to go slowly if you’re just starting out.

“Don’t do too much too soon,” Calabrese cautions.

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