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Could Strong Hands Mean a Longer Life?

A study finds that grip strength is a stronger predictor of future health than blood pressure, though the reasons why remain unclear.
(Photo: N i c o l a/Flickr)

(Photo: N i c o l a/Flickr)

Your hands say a lot about you, and your fate. A detective might use them to infer your social class or occupation. A palmist might use them to predict your luck in love. And in the realm of actual science, a new report suggests a doctor could use your hands—specifically, your grip strength—to gauge your health and risk of dying over the next few years.

Medical researchers have thought for a while that grip strength was a good indicator of health. After all, strong muscles are one aspect of overall fitness, and overall fitness clearly has something to do with cardiovascular health, and your risk of dropping dead in the next year. But most of the studies that back up that claim are limited—one, for example, focused entirely on Swedish young men aged 16 to 19, and the bulk of the research has been conducted in high-income countries, like Sweden and the United States.

Now, 25 researchers representing the Prospective Urban and Rural Epidemiological Study have confirmed grip strength's ability to measure overall health in people around the world. As it turns out, grip may be a better indicator of health than standard screening measures such as blood pressure and exercise habits.

For every five-kilogram decrease in grip strength, the risk of dying within four years increased by 16 percent.

Compared with past research, the PURE study has a major advantage: a sample of nearly 140,000 people from countries around the world. Each of those individuals went through an initial interview and health screening, which included measuring grip strength. The team followed up an average of four years later to determine how participants' health had changed. Over that time, 2.4 percent of the participants died from a variety of afflictions.

Grip strength was a surprisingly strong indicator of death and cardiovascular disease. After adjusting for demographic and health factors, such as exercise habits and medical history, the PURE team concluded that for every five-kilogram decrease in grip strength, the risk of dying within four years increased by 16 percent, and the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease—a heart attack or stroke, for example—increased by 17 percent. Though the effects were weaker, a five-kilo decrease in grip strength was also associated with a seven percent higher risk of having a heart attack and a nine percent increase in the risk of stroke. In fact, researchers even found that grip strength had more than twice as large an association with mortality rates as blood pressure, which is a nearly universal measure.

"Our study suggests that measurement of grip strength is a simple, inexpensive risk-stratifying method to assess risk of death," in countries around the world, the team writes today in The Lancet. Still, they emphasize that weak muscles are just an indicator, and not a cause, of death—working that stress ball or spring grip probably isn't going to doing that much for your health.

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