Harvard Women's Health Watch

In the journals: Grip strength and other physical measures predict lifespan

Older people who have good grip strength, can walk at a decent pace, are able to rise quickly from a chair, and can balance on one leg are likely to live longer than older people who have trouble with these tasks, according to a meta-analysis published online Sept. 10, 2010, in the medical journal BMJ. These simple tests of physical strength are often used to assess physical capability, meaning a person's ability to perform everyday tasks. This study concludes that these measures also help identify people at higher risk of death — and thus more likely to benefit from medical and lifestyle interventions.

The study. British researchers screened the medical literature and identified 28 observational studies that examined the relationship between mortality and at least one of the aforementioned measures of physical capability (grip strength, walking speed, chair rises, and standing balance) in community-dwelling women and men. The researchers combined the data and assessed the risk of dying early for each of the four measures.

The results. There was some variation among the studies, but overall, people who performed better on any of these measures lived longer than those who didn't do as well. In most of this research, participants were over age 70, but a handful of studies that involved people in their 60s (or younger) also reported an association between grip strength and mortality. Including participants of all ages — a total of more than 53,000 individuals in 14 studies of grip strength — the death rate among those with the weakest grip was 1.67 times higher than among those who had the strongest grip. Similarly, the slowest walkers were nearly three times as likely to die during the study period as the fastest walkers, and people who rose most slowly from a chair, compared with the fastest risers, were almost twice as likely to die. (The evidence on standing balance was somewhat weaker.)

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