Muscle strength is a powerful predictor of mortality that can be quickly and inexpensively assessed by measuring handgrip strength. In a new study, researchers developed cutoff points that apply to the general population while accounting for the relationship between handgrip strength and gender, body height, and age to be used in medical practice.
Most people don’t think about doing things like opening pickle jars or carrying groceries, but grip strength is an effective tool for checking various health conditions. If someone’s grip strength is low, it could be an indication of underlying health problems—and not just in older people: grip strength is linked to health problems even at a younger age. A large number of studies have shown that low handgrip strength can be a manifestation of health problems related to heart and lung problems. Some studies have also found that those with low grip strength have a lower life expectancy.
What is lacking for clinical practice are empirically meaningful cut-off points that apply to the general population while taking into account the relationship of handgrip strength to gender and body height, as well as the decline in handgrip strength resulting from normal aging.
In their study, just published in the journal BMJ Open, IIASA researcher Sergey Shcherbov; Sonja Spitzer, postdoctoral researcher at the Wittgenstein Center for Demography and Global Human Capital and the University of Vienna; and Nadia Steiber of the University of Vienna, attempted to shed light on at what level of handgrip strength a physician should consider referring a patient for further investigation. The results of the study provide standardized thresholds that directly relate handgrip strength to remaining life expectancy, thereby allowing practitioners to detect patients at increased risk of mortality at an early stage.
“In general, grip strength depends on a person’s gender, age and height. Our task was to find a threshold associated with handgrip strength that would signal the practitioner to do further testing if the patient’s handgrip strength was below this threshold. is similar to measuring blood pressure. When the blood pressure level is outside a certain range, the doctor can either decide to prescribe a certain drug or send the patient to a specialist for an additional examination,” Shterbov explains.
Grip strength is measured by squeezing a dynamometer with one hand. In the study, the patient is asked to perform two trials with each hand, and the best trial is used for measurement. There is a special protocol for this process, as values may depend on whether the test is performed standing or sitting, among other considerations.
Unlike previous studies, the authors compared the grip strength of individuals not to a healthy reference population, but to individuals who were comparable in terms of gender, age and body height. The findings indicate an increase in mortality risk at a threshold that is more sensitive than that estimated in earlier studies. In fact, the results show that handgrip strength that is only slightly below the average for a comparable population (taking into account a person’s gender, age and height) is indicative of health problems leading to earlier death. A stronger grip compared to other people of the same age, gender and body height was not found to reduce the risk of mortality.
“Grip strength is an inexpensive and easy test to perform, but it can help in the early diagnosis of health problems and other underlying health conditions. Monitoring the handgrip strength of older adults (and indeed middle-aged adults) may provide major public health benefits for aging populations. Our findings clearly show that handgrip strength is a very accurate and sensitive measure of underlying health conditions. Therefore, we suggest that it be used as a screening tool in medical practice,” notes Steiber.
“It’s important to note that we’re not suggesting that people need to train handgrip strength specifically to reduce mortality risks. Most likely, if someone improves their grip strength through exercise, it will have little or no effect on their overall health. However, low handgrip strength may serve as an indicator of disability because it reflects low muscle strength, which is associated with a higher risk of death. A healthy lifestyle and exercise are still the best approaches to maintaining or improving long-term good health,” Spitzer concludes.