For mountain climbers and weight lifters, a strong grip is critical for success. For everyone else, grip strength may be a reliable risk indicator for disease.
Measuring grip strength is an easy and cost-effective diagnostic tool some doctors use to assess heart health. A recent study published in the Lancet journal provides evidence that may convince more physicians to pick it up.
The grip-strength study was part of a larger ongoing project called the PURE study, where researchers are examining the health and disease patterns of more than 150,000 people over the course of several years. PURE (Prospective Urban and Rural Epidemiological) is the largest global study to look at environmental, societal, and biological influences on disease.
In 2003, participants enrolled in the PURE study were assessed for grip strength using a dynamometer—a hydraulic device that measures the pounds of pressure exerted in a squeeze of the hand.
Four years later, participants were assessed again noting a variety of conditions—heart attack, stroke, diabetes, cancer, respiratory illness, injury due to fall, and fracture. In both rich and poor countries, nearly all associations between grip strength and disease were very similar.
Researchers found that those with weaker grips were 17 percent more likely to die from heart disease—making grip strength a stronger predictor of cardiovascular mortality than systolic blood pressure. Weaker grips also saw a 9 percent higher stroke risk, a 7 percent higher risk of heart attack, and a 16 percent higher risk of death from any cause.
There was no significant association seen between grip and other diseases, such as diabetes and fracture. However, high-income countries saw a strong correlation between cancer risk and grip strength that did not occur in middle-income and poor countries.
Previous grip-strength examinations have revealed similar insights. A 2008 review of 45 grip-strength studies published in the Journal of Geriatric Physical Therapy found a weak grip to be a good indicator of mortality, disability, or complications following surgery.
Why does the grip-strength metric work, and can exercises used to improve grip strength also reduce the risk of heart disease? PURE researchers say more study is necessary to answer these questions.