Get A Grip: Handshake as Predictor of Longevity

The idea of assessing an individual by his handshake is nothing new. However recent research suggests that you may be able to judge much more than character.
05/16/2014 03:33 pm ET Updated Jul 15, 2014

The idea of assessing an individual by his handshake is nothing new. However recent research suggests that you may be able to judge much more than character.

The medical literature has described an association of lower levels of physical capability in such areas as grip strength or walking speed with lower survival rates in older populations. Such findings suggested that these easily administered and inexpensive tests may provide useful markers of undetected disease. In fact, recent studies have shown that these tests perform well when compared to traditional biomarkers of aging including inflammatory measures, blood pressure and telomere length.

Because no one had examined this in younger populations there was no data on how early the association might manifest and thereby provide the opportunity for game-changing interventions.

The Medical Research Council's National Survey of Health and Development (the oldest British cohort study) has been tracking the health of over 5000 Brits since their birth in 1946. Dr. Rachel Cooper at the MRC's Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing used three measures of physical capability in subjects at the age of 53; grip strength, chair rise speed and standing balance time. They were then followed for a period of 13 years. The researchers controlled for potentially confounding variables such as socioeconomic position, lifestyle factors and health status.

The results are a wake up call for the middle-aged. Three tests that seem more like children's games can inform you about your chance of dying in the near future. What are the implications of this data?

Long before we fall into the traditional abnormal columns that our medical system uses to assess our health, we can be sliding undetected toward disease.

The three telling tests used in this study assess physical functions that should not challenge a middle-aged human. It did not require a 100-meter dash, high jump and pushup count. Our ability to perform physically evolved over millions of years of rehearsal for survival. It was an essential function, not a fancy upgrade that might or might not be used. Not surprisingly, when some of the most basic physical capacities are slipping something is wrong. This loss of ground would not have required testing in the Paleolithic era when our genome was being defined. Impaired physical capacity meant extinction. As descendants of these people, with a relatively unchanged genome, it is fair to say that diminished physical capacity (as measured by these tests) at the age of 53, is illness.

A growing literature suggests that levels of physical capability in later life are determined not only by the rate of decline seen from midlife onwards but also, perhaps as importantly, by the peak fitness achieved during development. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that children engage in an hour or more of physical activity daily. More than 80 percent of American children do not meet this criteria. The down-stream disease burden this creates will not be fixable. It needs to be prevented.

We now know the consequence of not being physically active throughout life. Much of the science behind the association of sedentary lifestyle and illness came from NASA.

The astronauts, young remarkably fit people, returned from space missions with signs of accelerated aging. They experienced tremendous muscle loss, diminished bone density and impaired balance. Not moving against force was the problem.

Subjects who performed poorly on three simple physical tests in this recent British study lost more than muscle. They died. We do not think about health and physical fitness in the same way. Health remains more of a negative notion in that it is an absence of disease. Many believe they are healthy until diagnosed with an illness. This research helps enlarge the conception of health. There can be no health without physical fitness at any age. While this fitness looks different at age 80 than it does in a 10-year-old or 30-year-old, it can exist throughout life.

Use it or loose life.