Your future health is written in your hands. It reveals how your body and brain will fare in older age, what your risk of diseases is — and even your chances of marriage.
But this isn’t the stuff of palmistry. Scientists are discovering how the strength of your grip can hold astonishing powers to predict your life course.
A wealth of studies is revealing how the power behind a firm handshake can protect us against conditions such as heart attacks, diabetes and dementia.
Meanwhile, a feeble grip may condemn us to prematurely losing our good health and intelligence.
Grip like a vice: A wealth of studies is revealing how the power behind a firm handshake can protect us against conditions such as heart attacks, diabetes and dementia
Furthermore, a weak handshake can often sentence men to living solitary, unhealthy lives, researchers warned in April.
In a study of around 5,000 people, investigators at Columbia University in the U.S. found that men with strong grips were more likely to be married than men with weak grips.
Women’s grip strength bore no effect on their marital status.
The reasons underlying this link are revealed by a recent 17-year study of nearly 7,000 people by University College London, which found that having a weaker grip (at the start of the study) was associated with increased deaths, in particular from cardiovascular disease, lung disease and cancer.
Indeed, weak grip strength is a more accurate predictor for early death than having high blood pressure, according to an analysis published in The Lancet in 2015.
This was borne out in a study of 5,000 adults by Queen Mary University of London in March, which found those with the strongest hand grips had the healthiest hearts. ‘Hand grip strength could become an important method for identifying those at a high risk of heart disease,’ says Steffen Petersen, a professor of cardiology, who co-authored the study.
Professor Vegard Skirbekk, a professor of population and family health, who led the Columbia University study, says that women seem subconsciously to know all these things and favour marrying men with firm hand grips because they will have less risk of having to look after them in later life.
‘Men [with weak hand grips] end up lacking both health and support from a wife,’ adds Professor Skirbekk.
Linked: Researchers say grip strength provides a reliable measure of a person’s overall muscle strength — and this strength translates to being physically healthier
It’s not only physical health that links to grip strength. In April, a study of nearly half-a-million Britons revealed that having a strong grip is associated with having a more resilient brain later in life.
The study, in the journal Schizophrenia, found that healthy middle-aged people with strong grips performed significantly better in memory tests, reasoning and the ability to think quickly.
The researchers said this was because grip strength provides a reliable measure of a person’s overall muscle strength — and this strength translates to being physically healthier.
Essentially, a healthy body can feed the needs of a demanding human brain: an adult’s brain requires around 20 per cent of the body’s oxygen intake and consumes 20 per cent of its energy.
Previous research has found that people with stronger grips have significantly fewer signs of ageing-related degradation of their brain’s white matter.
White matter is composed of nerve bundles that link parts of the brain to each other and to the spinal cord.
If white matter breaks down as we age, it causes problems such as memory decline, depression and falls.
People with weak grips tend also to have higher levels of chronic inflammation — and this damages nerves in the brain, which causes age-related mental decline, too.
Conversely, elderly adults with greater muscle strength in their limbs enjoy increased mental abilities, says Joseph Firth, a research psychiatrist at the University of Manchester.
He suggests doctors use grip strength as a routine measurement for brain health.
A study co-authored by Dr Firth found that positive links between strong grip and a healthy brain can be seen as early as age 40 to 55.
At this early stage, it is easy to improve your muscle and grip strength and maintain them.
Our grip strength peaks at the age of 30, according to research by Richard Dodds, an epidemiologist at the Medical Research Council. This strength remains steady, then declines, so that about a quarter of 80-year-olds are classified as having a seriously weak grip.
Dr Dodds says a programme of weight training exercises — which incrementally increases the load that muscles can bear — can improve strength and grip.
However, Dr Andrew Cooper, a research epidemiologist who has looked at grip strength for the Medical Research Council, says a structured exercise regimen may be too hard for us to sustain.
He recommends maintaining habits that challenge our bodies, however modestly. ‘From an early age, the more everyday physical activity you do, the stronger your grip strength,’ he says.
‘In later life, you can keep up your overall muscle strength — and, therefore, grip strength — by doing everyday tasks such as gardening, carrying heavy shopping and vacuuming.
‘Trials show such things improve overall strength and grip.’