By LOUISE CARR, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Are you losing your grip? If so, pay attention because your hand grip could be sending out a message about your health. Very few of us even think about our hand grip unless we notice that we no longer have a strong handshake. But did you know that the strength you can muster to squeeze a ball or a weight doesn't only tell you how strong your arm is? In fact, your hand grip reveals much more about your overall health. Your hand grip may even predict how long you will live. Why is your hand grip linked to your wellbeing and your health? Does a strong grip mean good health, and why? What does a strong handshake tell you about your overall health?
Why Do We Test Hand Grip?
Why does your hand strength matter? Why should your doctor care if you have a strong handshake?
Well, experts are not only interested in the strength of your hand and wrist when they test your hand grip. Doctors, physical therapists and scientists measure hand grip because it is a simple way to measure the overall power of your muscles.
And overall muscle strength is very important when it comes to health and longevity. In the test you grip a piece of equipment called a dynamometer, which registers strength in pounds of compression.
This measurement is used to make an assessment of your general muscle mass and strength- if you have a lot of muscle in your upper body and can grip the dynamometer strongly, you will most likely have a lot of muscle in your lower body too, and vice versa.
What is a Normal Hand Grip Strength?
Hand grip strength changes with time so there is no "normal" hand grip - the reading will depend on your age, and the state of your health.
What is normal hand grip strength for a woman? In general terms, a woman aged between 30 and 34 is likely to have average hand grip strength of 70 pounds, while an older woman (aged over 80) will probably have an average hand grip strength of nearer 37 pounds, according to data from the University of Connecticut.
Read on to find out how your hand grip is linked to your health, and what you can do to improve the strength of your grip and your future wellbeing.
1. Check Your Hand Grip: After Middle Age, Muscle Mass Declines
Once you hit middle age your muscle mass starts declining - at a reasonably fast rate of 1 percent per year, according to experts at the University of Connecticut. This decline is called sarcopenia. According to a 2011 study from the University of Southampton, UK hand grip strength is a good measure of muscle strength and the progress of sarcopenia. If your hand grip is abnormally poor for your age it can be a sign that sarcopenia is happening too quickly.
But all is not lost - you can slow down the process of sarcopenia and build up your muscle strength for your senior years. To strengthen your grip, use a special hand gripper tool or a simple tennis ball. If you don´t have a tennis ball, a tight ball of your rolled up socks will work. As well as strengthening your hand and wrist you also need to work on your general strength - sign up to a strength or weights program at the gym, and keep fit and healthy as you age.
2. Does a Weak Hand Grip Signal Early Mortality?
Put simply - will you die sooner if you can't grip a tennis ball very well? Perhaps. Weak hand grip has been associated with higher mortality rates so it pays to take your hand grip measurement seriously. A 2010 study by Leiden University Medical Center, Leiden, Netherlands found that, out of 555 85-year-olds, people whose hand grip strength weakened most over four years died in greater numbers in the following nine and a half years. Also, those with the weakest hand grip had a greater chance of dying. Testing hand grip can help identify seniors most at risk of death.
3. Hand Grip Is Linked to Better Mental Function
As well as muscle strength, hand grip may be linked to mental strength. Experts point to a significant link between lower handgrip strength and poor cognition, regardless of age. These results come from a 2005 study at the University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston. The study looked at 2,381 Mexican-Americans over a period of seven years. Those with poor cognition tended to have weak hand grip, and hand grip declined more significantly in people with low cognitive skills.
4. Omega-3 Fatty Acids Improve Hand Grip Strength
We hear so much about omega-3 fatty acids and here's another reported reason for eating fatty fish - omega-3s may improve your hand grip strength. A 2008 study from the University of Southampton, UK showed grip strength increased by 0.43kg for men and 0.48kg for women for every portion of fatty fish eaten per week. Hand grip strength increased regardless of the person's age, leading researchers to believe that omega-3 fatty acids can play an important role in preventing sarcopenia and building muscle strength in old age.
5. Hand Grip Strength Predicts How Quickly Your Activities of Daily Living Decline
If your muscle mass declines too much and you cannot properly carry out everyday tasks - called your activities of daily living - your life quickly becomes difficult and less healthy. Hand grip strength can predict your risk of being unable to look after yourself in old age, according to a 2010 study at the Leiden University Medical Center, The Netherlands. Lower hand grip strength predicted a faster decline in activities of daily living according to the study of 555 seniors.
6. How the Fetus Develops Affects Hand Grip Later in Life?
You may not have complete control over your hand grip, according to experts. It seems higher birth weights mean greater grip strength in later life. A 2007 study by Southampton General Hospital, University of Southampton, UK found grip strength increased with birth weight - by 1.10kg per kilogram of birth weight. This implies that the way a baby develops can affect muscle strength and general health when you're older.
7. Your Hand Grip Is a Predictor of Osteoporosis
Osteoporosis is a danger to the health, particularly for women in middle age once bone mass begins to decline. The strength of your hand grip may indicate the risk of osteoporosis according to a 2012 study from the University of Eastern Finland, Finland. According to the study women with osteoporosis had significantly weaker hand grip than those without osteoporosis or osteopenia. Researchers concluded that a hand grip test was a good tool for predicting osteoporosis risk in post-menopausal women.
8. Hand Grip Strength Is a Sign of Nutritional Weaknesses
If you have a weak hand grip, what does it tell you about your general health? According to experts, poor hand grip strength can be a sign of poor nutrition. A 2011 study from Charité-University Medicine Berlin, Berlin, Germany showed that because muscles react early to nutritional deprivation, a hand grip test is useful for identifying possible deficiencies in the diet.
9. Poor Hand Grip Indicates a Greater Risk of a Longer Hospital Stay
Hospitalization is a big fear, particularly as you age, and no one wants to spend a long time in hospital. According to a 2008 study by the Neag School of Education, University of Connecticut low hand grip strength was consistently associated with a longer length of stay after surgery or hospitalization. Increase your hand grip and you may be able to stay out of hospital in later life.
10. Your Hand Grip May Tell You if You'll Have a Stroke
How strong your hand grip is in middle age helps predict your risk of suffering a stroke in later life, according to a 2012 study from the Boston Medical Center. Researchers looked at 2,400 people. Those aged 65 and over who had a stronger hand grip at the beginning of the study had a 42 percent lower risk of suffering a stroke than those with weaker hand grip. A hand grip test could give you the knowledge you need to make changes in your life that have a big effect as you get older. Stronger hand grip means stronger health, in general, and it pays to increase your grip as well as your overall muscle strength.