What does your handshake say about your health?

handshake health
© Yeko Photo Studio

A lot, apparently, and researchers say grip strength could become a simple and inexpensive test to measure health risks.

What if costly, wasteful medical tests could be replaced with a simple assessment of one’s hand strength?

Researchers from McMaster University and Hamilton Health Sciences say that this is a foreseeable possibility.

A comprehensive study including nearly 140,000 adults aged 35 to 70 – which took place over four years in 17 countries – looked at muscle strength measured using a handgrip dynamometer. What they found was remarkable: The firmness of one’s handgrip is better than blood pressure at assessing health. Reduced muscular strength, measured by grip, is consistently linked with early death, disability and illness. Basically, the stronger your handshake, the longer you'll live.

"Grip strength could be an easy and inexpensive test to assess an individual's risk of death and cardiovascular disease," said principal investigator Dr. Darryl Leong, an assistant professor of medicine of McMaster's Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine and cardiologist for the hospital. "Doctors or other healthcare professionals can measure grip strength to identify patients with major illnesses such as heart failure or stroke who are at particularly high risk of dying from their illness."

The surprising takeaway from the study is this: For every 11-pound decline in grip strength, there was a one in six increased risk of death from any cause. There was the same 17 percent higher risk of death from either heart disease or stroke, or non-cardiovascular conditions.

And these associations with grip strength were not accounted for by differences in age, sex, education level, employment status, physical activity, tobacco and alcohol use, diet, BMI, waist-to-hip ratio or other conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, cancer, coronary artery disease, COPD, stroke or heart failure, or their country's wealth, notes the study.

But now the interesting part – can this knowledge be gamed to flip the script? The study concludes that further research is needed to determine whether improvement in strength reduces mortality and cardiovascular disease. Until then, I know I'll be working on a firmer handshake.

The study, "Prognostic value of grip strength: findings from the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study," was published in The Lancet.

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