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What your grip strength says about your health

Alisha Vargas

Instead of spending hundreds of dollars on genetic testing to tell you what diseases you're at risk for, testing the strength of your grip could give you similar information about how long you might live.

This week on “Take Care,” Dr. Darryl Leong explains a new revelation that grip strength may be an indicator of mortality. As an assistant professor of cardiology at McMaster University in Ontario, Leong, along with a team of researchers, conducted a four year-long study focusing on this correlation.

Leong and his team gathered about 140,000 participants aged 35-70 years old with a wide range in gender, ethnicity, income, and family health history. Using a tool called a dynamometer, they measured the grip strength of each participant.

So why grip strength?

“It really reflects your overall muscle strength, and therefore probably your overall general health,” Leong said. In past research, this has been done by measuring leg strength, but Leong says the results are just as accurate and it’s easy and inexpensive.

Although aerobic activity seems to be the most widely encouraged form of exercise, Leong says strength training is just as important.

“When you have good muscle quality, perhaps through exercise, there might be release of various chemicals or hormones, either locally or throughout the circulation, that might reduce your chances of developing heart disease and cardiovascular disease,” Leong said. 

To make this study accurate, Leong adjusted for height, weight, gender, and blood pressure of each participant before measuring their strength. However, he soon found out ethnicity also needed to be taken into account. Their research found that European men had the highest grip strength, and South Asian men had the lowest. For women, European, Latin American, and Chinese women all had some of the strongest grip strengths, and Malaysian women had the weakest.

After studying the participants for years, Leong found that for every 5 kilograms, or 11 pounds, lower strength a person had, there was about a 17 percent higher risk of them dying prematurely due to heart disease, cardiovascular disease, or stroke. This was calculated after considering the person’s health history.

To further his research, Leong is working on a follow-up study demonstrating ways people can improve their grip strength and if that improvement really can reduce health risks.

“This is an area of science we need to fill,” Leong said.

Although there are many questions about this correlation that still need to be answered, Leong may be on to something.