Wednesday, February 10, 1999

Isle study finds
health foretold in
a handshake

Middle-aged men who had
the strongest grip fared
better in older age

By Lori Tighe


"Get a grip" may take on a new meaning for Japanese-American men.

Researchers reported today that the grip strength of thousands of Japanese-American men participating in the Honolulu Heart Program forecast how well their health would be in older age.

"Remaining fit in midlife can potentially have a major impact on the ability to remain independent in old age," said Dr. Jack Guralnik, a researcher at the National Institute on Aging in Maryland and a study investigator.

The study, reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, followed 8,000 healthy Japanese-American men age 45 to 68 living on Oahu in 1965. Today 3,200 of them are still alive.

"Many were laborers who worked in the fields. They used their whole bodies to work," Guralnik said. "We learned their grip strength was a marker for long-term muscle strength."

Men with the lowest grip strength were twice as likely to have a disability in older age, the study showed.

"They were the slowest walkers, the slowest risers. They had difficulty in taking care of themselves," said Dr. Kamal Masaki, a researcher in the Honolulu Heart Program at Kuakini Medical Center and co-author of the study.

Men with the highest grip strength were more independent, in better health and stronger, according to the study.

"Your strength in midlife will protect you from disability when you get older," Masaki said. "Since muscles decline with age, when you do become older you have more reserve to rely on."

The finding may help explain why some older people deteriorate faster than others, said Dr. David Curb, principal investigator of the Honolulu Heart Program.

"You can't rely on risk factors for an old person as you can with a middle-aged person," Curb said.

Risk factors for heart disease and cancer include smoking, alcohol, exercise, diet and weight.

"For example, people with high cholesterol in old age may be the least likely to die or become disabled," Curb said.

The hand-grip test can provide doctors with another diagnostic tool to test the middle-aged for healthy longevity, Curb said. It could identify otherwise healthy people at greater risk of being disabled years later due to poor muscle tone.

With such advance warning, middle-aged patients might be more willing to tone their muscles with exercise or weight training to help them avoid nursing homes in their senior years.

The 34-year study didn't take into account the carpal tunnel syndrome, an arthritic-like condition of the hands and arms thought to be caused by repetitive use, such as computer use. Neither did it account for stroke or hand injuries.

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