What’s in a handshake? It’s a greeting, a means of showing others that you aren’t carrying weapons. It’s a good way to spite someone, if you don’t mind not washing your hands after you use the bathroom. It’s a way for men to assert their masculinity by trying to out-squeeze each other. That last facet may be more than just a show of bravado – a study by researchers at McMaster University found that a weak grip is a reliable indicator of an increased risk of early death and disability.
“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 at the 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 stoke who are at particularly high risk of dying from their illness.”
It’s not all about hands, that’s just the easiest way for researchers to gauge muscle strength, which is the real indicator of health and wellness. For the study, researchers followed about 140,000 adults aged 35-70 in 17 countries over the course of four years. Over the course of the study, their grip strength was measured with a device called a dynamometer.
The results of the study were astounding – for every 5kg decrease in grip strength over time, there was a one in six increased risk of death – from any cause. There was a similar 17% increased risk of death from either heart disease or stroke, or non-cardiovascular conditions. The researchers controlled for every possible factor that could effect grip strength: 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, and national wealth were all controlled for and could not explain the discrepancies.
Size and weight obviously influenced grip strength, and curiously enough so did ethnicity. The researchers said there wasn’t yet enough information to determine a baseline for a “healthy” grip strength for each country. They also aren’t yet sure if efforts to improve grip strength would also reduce the risk of death and illness.