Believe it or not: The strength of your handgrip plays a crucial role in several things you do day-to-day—everything from holding a pen, carrying a bag of groceries and opening the door to certain hobbies and sports.
While handgrip strength is often overlooked, new research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests it can tell you a lot about your health, which includes brain activity (neuroimaging), cognition and dementia risk.
Researchers from the University of California San Francisco found that a gradual decrease in grip strength was linked to:
- Lower fluid intelligence scores – including the ability to learn new things, think abstractly and solve problems – in both men and women
- Poor odds of correctly responding to memory tasks
- Greater white matter “hyperintensity volume,” which correlates with blood pressure and is a sign of vascular damage in the brain
These results show that handgrip strength can increase your muscle strength over time, said Kate Duchowny, PhD, one of the study’s authors from UCSF. However, in middle age, seen as a “vulnerable window” in terms of maintaining muscle strength, a handgrip can serve as a buffer and improve neurocognitive brain health in later life.
“What these results point to is that exercise is extremely important for maintaining and protecting brain health among middle-aged and older adults,” she said, “and that’s powerful in thinking about interventions and how to disrupt decline at a later age.”
What these results point to is that exercise is extremely important for maintaining and protecting brain health among middle-aged and older adults.
What else you need to know about the study
Duchowny and her colleagues evaluated around 190,406 participants between the ages of 39 to 79 who were enrolled in the U.K. Biobank. Grip strength was measured using a hydraulic hand dynamometer; participants would squeeze the tool and the device would give a measurement from the right hand and left hand in kilograms. After the tests, the researchers looked at all levels of grip strength for both men and women.
“We looked at people at baseline and found that people with lower handgrip strength at baseline had an increased risk of dementia,” Sarah Ackley, PhD, one of the study’s authors.
Why might grip strength be linked to dementia risk?
Exercise, moving and other activities like lifting weights are tightly correlated to muscle strength and grip strength, and these types of exercise and activities matter for the maintenance of muscle strength over time. In fact, handgrip strength can give an accurate picture of someone’s total body muscle strength.
“If you are able to maintain your muscle strength, then that has important implications for neurocognitive brain health and looking at each of these domains in later life,” Duchowny said.
Previous studies suggest as people age, they also lose muscle mass, resulting in a weaker grip. When grip strength weakens, it may also mean that age-related changes in parts of the brain that coordinate movement are occurring as well.
What are signs of decreasing handgrip strength?
Ackley noted that because people’s physical abilities, strength, body weight and other factors vary, indicators of decreasing handgrip strength can look different for multiple people.
In general, for older adults, decreasing handgrip strength may mean difficulty getting in and out of a chair, not being able to get in or out of bed, or struggling to get in the bath, open a door, or even grip a handrail.
Decreasing handgrip strength may mean difficulty getting in and out of a chair, not being able to get in or out of bed, or struggling to get in the bath, open a door, or even grip a handrail.
“If you can’t get up the stairs and grip a railing or can’t do things that require muscle strength, that’s a red flag,” Duchowny added. “Those folks need to be closely monitored for their overall health, but also they should be engaging in activities that sort of improve their muscle health as a way of maintaining independence at an older age.”
If you notice some of these signs in yourself or a loved one, see a doctor to ensure there are no orthopedic or neurological changes occurring, said Ryan Glatt, MS, a psychometrist, personal trainer and brain health coach for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center. He added that people can consult with an occupational therapist, physical therapist or orthopedist depending on what might be causing the hand strength issue, but keep in mind how certain medications may affect this.
Should I test grip strength at home?
Duchowny said because they used dynamometers and specific tools that needed to be calibrated to calculate grip strength, it’s not necessarily recommended for people to test their own grip strength at home and use it as a diagnostic on an individual level.
While testing grip strength can be subjective, Glatt said there are things you can pay attention to at home – including tasks of daily living that have decreased or having trouble doing things as easily as before – to help determine if you should see a doctor.
“Tasks such as carrying groceries, opening jars, and picking up heavier and awkward items may represent a reflection of practical grip strength,” Glatt said, adding there are products, grip strength assessments and inexpensive dynamometers available that can measure grip strength more objectively.
How do I maintain strong handgrip strength?
Grip strength is associated with overall muscle strength, so focus on incorporating other types of movement into your daily routine, including core strength training, muscle resistance or other types of exercises that improve total body muscle strength.
However, Ackley cautions that if there’s a certain exercise or hand movement you can’t do, that doesn’t mean other exercises won’t count or matter.
“If someone can’t lift weights with their hands or engage in other activities, they shouldn’t come away from reading the study or report thinking they can’t work on that or can’t improve that,” she said. “I think the lesson is you should exercise in whatever way you can, even if it’s just walking, getting out and moving. That matters.”