Weak handgrip strength could be a sign of underlying health problems.
By testing handgrip strength, one can rapidly and easily determine muscle strength, a significant predictor of death. In a recent study, scientists created cut-off points for the general population while also taking into account how handgrip strength relates to gender, body height, and age to be used in medical practice.
Opening pickle jars or carrying groceries are tasks that most people take for granted, however, handgrip strength is a useful screening tool for a variety of medical issues. Low handgrip strength may be a sign of underlying health problems, and this is true not only for older people; handgrip strength has been associated with health problems as early as young adulthood. Low handgrip strength may be a symptom of conditions linked to heart and lung issues, according to a large number of studies. Additionally, research has shown that people with weak handgrips often have shorter life expectancies.
What is needed for clinical practice are scientifically sound cut-off points that apply to the entire population, while also taking into account the relationship between gender and body height and handgrip strength as well as the loss of handgrip strength with age.
Sergei Scherbov, a researcher at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Sonja Spitzer, a postdoctoral researcher at the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital and the University of Vienna, and Nadia Steiber, also from the University of Vienna, set out to clarify at what level of handgrip strength a doctor should consider sending a patient for further testing. Their findings were recently published in the journal BMJ Open. The study provides defined cutoffs that directly correlate handgrip strength to remaining life expectancy, allowing doctors to identify patients who are more likely to die early.
“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 Scherbov.
Handgrip strength is measured by squeezing a dynamometer with one hand. In the study, the patient is asked to perform two attempts with each hand, the best trial being used for measurement. There is a special protocol for this process as the values may depend on whether the test was performed in a standing or a sitting position, among other considerations.
In contrast to earlier studies, the authors compared individuals’ handgrip strength not with a healthy reference population, but with individuals who are comparable in terms of sex, age, and body height. The findings indicate an increase in mortality risk at a threshold that is more sensitive compared to that estimated in earlier studies. In fact, the results show that a handgrip strength that is only slightly below the average of a comparable population (considering a person’s sex, age, and body height) is indicative of health conditions leading to an earlier death. A stronger handgrip compared to other people of the same age, sex, and body height was not found to reduce the 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 be used as a screening tool in medical practice,” notes Steiber.
“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,” Spitzer concludes.
Reference: “Thresholds for clinical practice that directly link handgrip strength to remaining years of life: estimates based on longitudinal observational data ” by Sergei Scherbov, Sonja Spitzer and Nadia Steiber, 22 July 2022, BMJ Open.