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The William Harvey Research Institute - Barts and The London

Weak hand grip could be sign of a failing heart

Hand grip strength could be used as a simple measure of heart health, according to new research led by scientists at Queen Mary University of London.

15 March 2018

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The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE and funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF), discovered that a weak grip can be associated with changes in the heart’s structure and function, and could be used as a broad measure of someone’s heart health. 

By asking people to grip a device called a dynamometer for 3 seconds, the scientists were able to determine someone’s grip strength and compare this to detailed scans of their heart. 

Data from 5,000 people

Using data from nearly 5,000 people enrolled in the UK Biobank study, the team found that people with low grip strength had weaker hearts that were less able to pump blood around the body. Low hand grip strength was also associated with having enlarged, damaged hearts.

Participants in the study underwent heart scans that allowed the researchers to precisely work out the volume of blood that was pumped by their heart with every heartbeat. They found that better hand grip strength was linked to higher volumes and proportions of blood being pumped by the heart and healthier heart muscle – which is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular events like heart attacks and strokes.

Coronary heart disease kills 66,000 people in the UK alone every year – most of these deaths are due to heart attacks. Strokes cause around 38,000 deaths in the UK each year. Spotting people who are at risk of these fatal events could allow them to get treatment and, ultimately, save lives.

‘An inexpensive and easy to implement measure’

Professor Steffen Petersen, who led the research from Queen Mary’s William Harvey Research Institute, said: “Our study shows that better hand grip strength is associated with having a healthier heart structure and function.

“Hand grip strength is an inexpensive, reproducible and easy to implement measure, and could become an easy way of identifying people at high risk of heart disease and preventing major life-changing events, such as heart attacks.”

Julie Ward, Senior Cardiac Nurse at the BHF, said: “Measuring someone’s grip strength, alongside knowing their family history and other risk factors such as high cholesterol and blood pressure, could be a cheap and easy way of finding those most at risk of heart attacks and strokes. More research is needed to understand exactly how weak grip strength is associated with poorer heart function. 

“It’s important to keep in mind that this research does not mean you will have a heart attack if you find yourself with a limp handshake or struggling to open a jar. If you are concerned about your heart health, or your overall fitness, please speak to your GP.”

More information

  • Research paper: ‘Prospective association between handgrip strength and cardiac structure and function in UK adults’ by Beyer et al. PLOS ONE. doi 1371/journal.pone.0193124
  • Find out more about cardiovascular research at the William Harvey Research Institute