Struggling to open jars? How it could be a sign of serious disease

IF you struggle to open the jam jar, it could be an ominous sign of serious illness.

Researchers have once again added weight to the idea that hand grip strength is an indicator of disease and lifespan.


Opening jars gets harder as we age – but are you finding it more difficult than others your age?Credit: Alamy

Experts have long been warning that difficulty with tasks requiring hand strength may be linked with diabetes, heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s.

These tasks include carrying shopping bags or holding a large pan of water.

Scientists from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Austria, asked participants to squeeze a device called a dynamometer twice in each hand – a standard way of measuring handgrip strength.

A person grasps the gadget the same way as they would a glass, with their elbows tucked by their sides, and squeezes. 

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Dr Sergei Scherbov, lead researcher, said: “Our task was to find the threshold related to handgrip strength that would signal a practitioner to do further examinations if a patient’s handgrip strength is below this threshold. 

“It is similar to measuring blood pressure.

“When the level of blood pressure is outside of a particular range, the doctor can either decide to prescribe a particular medicine or to send the patient to a specialist for further examination.”

The researcher, who published their findings in the BMJ Open were not able to create a test that people can do at home.

Rather, they are suggesting doctors use the thresholds they discovered in surgeries. 

Co-researcher Nadia Steiber, of the University of Vienna, said handgrip strenght was a “very precise and sensitive measure of underlying health conditions”.

“Monitoring the handgrip strength of the elderly (and in fact middle-aged people) may provide great benefits,” she said.

“Therefore, we suggest it to be used as a screening tool in medical practice.”

Is your handgrip weak?

Dr Scherbov said in general, “handgrip strength depends on gender, age, and the height of a person”. 

In this study, they found that a handgrip strength just slightly below the average of a comparable population “is indicative of health conditions leading to earlier death”.

That means, if you compared your handgrip to a large group of people the same age, gender and weight as you, and had a lower score, it may spell trouble.

Devices sold online – such as this £39.99 one – will give a grip value and status of either “weak”, “normal”, or “strong” according to a person’s age and gender. 

According to an article in The Conversation, people in their 20s have an average grip strength of 46kg for men and 29kg for women.

This decreases to 39kg and 23.5kg by the time a person reaches 60-69 years of age, Professor Adam Taylor, of Lancaster University, said.

How is hand grip strength an indicator of disease

Prof Taylor said: “Research shows that having a grip strength that was lower than average compared to people of the same gender and age range was associated with risk of heart failure, where lower strength indicated detrimental changes in the heart’s structure and function. 

“Similarly, research has shown weaker grip strength is a strong predictor of cardiac death, death from any cause, and hospital admission for heart failure.

“Being diagnosed with colorectal, prostate or lung cancer in men, and breast and lung cancer in women are all associated with a five-kilogram reduction in grip strength in people aged 60-69. 

“This decrease in grip strength was also associated with a higher likelihood of death from colorectal cancer in men and breast cancer in women.”

People with obesity and type 2 diabetes have also shown to have a weaker grip.

Prof Taylor explained that with diseases like diabetes, cancer and heart disease, the muscle’s ability to function reduces for a number of reasons. 

In diabetes, for example, excess fat in the muscles weakens them.

Add in fatigue – a symptom of many diseases, such as cancer – and more difficulty exercising, and this can degenerate muscles over time, which is measurable in the hands. 

Earlier this year, researchers led by the University of Bristol showed that those with higher values of handgrip strength had a lower risk of dementia (27 per cent) and Alzheimer’s (32 per cent).

The Bristol researchers explained several potential reasons for the findings in their paper.

They suggested that loss of skeletal muscle is associated with inflammation, which may be an underlying cause of dementia. 

But poor grip strength may be a vague and largely missed symptom of disease.

It is indicative of frailty, which is usually linked with higher odds of chronic diseases.

Dr Sonja Spitzer, a postdoctoral researcher, University of Vienna, said it was important to point out that the team is not suggesting that people need to strengthen their hands and forearms to slash their risk of death.

In fact, the study did not find that a stronger handgrip above the average reduced mortality risk.

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“Most likely, if someone improves their handgrip strength through exercises, there will be no or very little impact on their overall health,” she said.

“A healthy lifestyle and exercise are still the best approaches to sustain good health or to improve it in the long term.”

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