Can't open a jar of pickles? This is what it means for your health

True, sometimes you’re tired or the lid is stuck really tight, but the grip strength of your hand is significant to your health and may indicate other problems.

 Man holding jar (illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Man holding jar (illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

Can't open the pickle jar no matter how hard you try? It may seem trivial to you, but a new study conducted in Austria reports that weak hand grip strength may signal more serious health problems.

Researchers say muscle strength is a fairly accurate indicator of mortality over the years, and previous studies have linked severely weak hand grip strength to cardiovascular problems and lower life expectancy. Now, scientists from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis whose research was published in BMJ Open report that measuring grip strength is a quick and inexpensive means of assessing overall muscle strength.

The study authors developed a series of "cut points" to help measure grip. These points also explain the correlation between grip strength, gender and body height, as well as the natural age-related decline in grip strength which affects everyone.

The team investigated what level of grip weakness should concern your doctor. Their work established standard threshold values which directly link grip strength to life expectancy. In theory, this provides doctors with another way to identify patients at increased risk of early death.

Generally, grip strength depends on gender, age and height. The researchers' task was to find the baseline measurement for grip strength. A number below the baseline shows that more medical tests should be performed. Researchers explain that: "It’s similar to measuring blood pressure. When BP level is outside a certain range, a doctor may prescribe pills or refer the patient to a specialist for more exams.”

Hand Dynamometers are used to test grip strength (credit: INGIMAGE PHOTOS)Hand Dynamometers are used to test grip strength (credit: INGIMAGE PHOTOS)

Even a slightly weak grip can be a bad sign

People can measure their grip by pressing on a dynamometer device. For this test, patients performed two presses with each hand; researchers used only their best performance for the measurement. The measured strength values depended on if the person sat or stood while pressing.

Rather than only comparing the participants' grip with a healthy reference population as in previous studies, researchers compared each person’s grip with people comparable in gender, age and height.

Results indicate an increase in the risk of mortality at a lower grip baseline than the level determined in previous studies. For example, the study found that grip strength only slightly below the average of a similar population (taking into account a person's sex, age and height) "is indicative of health conditions that lead to an earlier death."

A strong grip doesn’t mean the opposite

Interestingly, the connection between grip strength and mortality might not work both ways. A stronger hand grip compared to others of the same age, gender and body height didn’t show a reduced mortality risk.

Nadia Steiber from the University of Vienna noted that grip strength is an inexpensive and easy test to perform, and may show an early diagnosis of health problems and other underlying health conditions. 

Monitoring the grip strength of elderly and middle-aged people may help public health bodies monitor health in aging populations. Study findings show that grip strength is an accurate and sensitive measure of basic health conditions and should be  a screening tool. 

Researchers concluded that it's important to note that we aren’t suggesting that people should improve grip strength specifically to reduce mortality risks. It’s likely that even if someone improves their grip strength through exercises, it won’t improve their health. 

Yet, low grip strength reflects low muscle strength, which is associated with a higher risk of death. A healthy lifestyle and physical activity are still the best approaches to improve or maintain good health.