We all know we can’t slow down aging, as much as we may wish there was a way. We routinely go to the doctor to check on our health, conducting all the familiar tests–blood pressure, temperature, step on the scale, big breath in and out. These tests are all very important, however if we look closely, our bodies provide us with many more simple indicators that can signal how healthy we are, and will continue to be.
Read on to learn more about three factors you may not have thought about before–grip strength, balance and nerve health.
What is grip strength?
Put simply, grip strength measures the force or tension generated by the muscles in your hands and forearms.
How is grip strength measured?
A tool called a hand dynamometer, one pictured below, is the most accurate way to quantitatively measure grip strength. There are different versions of this tool, but all types basically measure the force of your squeeze in pounds or kilograms.
What does grip strength tell us about our health?
Consider how many daily tasks we accomplish using our hands–probably too many to count. As it turns out, our hands are one of the best proxies for measuring overall health as we age, since they are able to produce both fine and forceful motor movements. But what specifically can our hands tell us about what’s going on inside our bodies?
Many people use smartwatches or blood pressure cuffs to keep track of their heart function, since we know our hearts affect numerous body processes that keep us feeling well. It seems unlikely that our hands could give us information about our heart, but the opposite is true. In fact, a subsection of the international Prospective Urban and Rural Epidemiological (PURE) Study has shown that grip strength is highly correlated to cardiovascular health, and measuring it has turned out to be an inexpensive and fast way to gain insight into risk for potentially dangerous heart problems. The study, which measured grip strength in over 140,000 participants, even found that grip strength was, in this case, a statistically better predictor of all-cause and cardiovascular mortality than systolic blood pressure.
Not only does grip strength impact physical health, it also seems to have strong ties to mental health in adults. Research conducted in the United Kingdom over a very large sample size (upwards of 500,000 individuals spanning the ages 40-69) has described preliminary findings that grip strength is highly correlated to visual and numerical memory, as well as reaction time. While more studies will need to be conducted to determine the specific mechanisms that facilitate this relationship, this research is some of the first to see consistent results linking better grip strength with better cognition. Since weakening grip strength is usually indicative of muscle loss in other areas of the body, including the brain, regular testing could potentially allow physicians to identify and treat cognitive decline earlier.
How can I improve my grip strength?
No doubt that tasks like opening a pesky jar or carrying in as many grocery bags as you can in one trip are made easier by a strong grip! If you want to work on this, there are exercises you can do at home or at work with objects you probably already have in the house like books, a tennis ball, or a wine bottle. Women’s Health has many easy examples of exercises to improve your grip strength.
What is balance?
Balance refers to our physical stability and steadiness, as we move around in our environment.
How is balance measured?
It’s pretty easy to test your balance– you may already have some indication as to whether you have good balance. If not, you could try a few simple things to test your balance at home.
- Stand and reach forward with your arms straight in front of you– you should be able to reach about 25 cm or 10 in without losing your balance
- Stand on one foot– you should be able to last around 10-30 seconds on average without teetering
What can balance tell us about our health?
Recently a study in the British Journal of Sports medicine made headlines when a team of Brazilian researchers published a study claiming that a 10 second balance test is linked to how long people will live. How is this possible? Put simply, as we age, aspects of our physical health like aerobic capacity and flexibility tend to decline earlier, whereas balance usually remains steady into our 60’s, thus making it a strong predictor of overall health. The CLINIMEX Exercise Study asked around 1,700 fully mobile participants ages 51-75 to do the 10 second balance test 3 times each. Their analysis revealed that the 20% of participants who failed the test had poorer health than their counterparts. The participants who failed tended to struggle more so with issues like obesity, cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. The data revealed that those who failed the balance test were nearly twice as likely to die within the next 10 years than those who passed the test. It’s no surprise then that these stunning results were headline-making.
We also spoke with Dr. Galina Shenfeld, CEO of the Balance and Dizziness Center located in Palisades Park, New Jersey, about balance’s connection to overall health. She told us that while many people assume decline in balance and associated falls are an inescapable part of growing older, in fact “Falling is not a part of aging. Treatable conditions like peripheral neuropathy, bradycardia, low blood pressure loss of balance and falls or BPPV (Benign Positional Paroxysmal Vertigo) can contribute to loss of balance and falls.” She recommends visiting a specialist to get evaluated if you notice any new symptoms.
How can I improve my balance?
Improved balance is usually related to increasing strength. Harvard Medical School tells us that common activities like walking, riding a bike or climbing stairs can help your balance by strengthening muscles in the lower body. If you are looking for a more targeted regimen, you could try out yoga or Tai Chi. These types of work-outs are less taxing on your body–they involve stretching, gradual weight shifts and breath work, all of which will help with your balance over the long term.
When treating their patients, Dr. Shenfield and her staff often use a technique known as Vestibular Rehabilitation Therapy (VRT). She describes VRT as “an easy set of exercises designed to improve or restore balance, minimize complaints of blurred vision and dizziness and decrease risk of falling.” VRT is customized to the needs of each individual, and can help improve the negative effects of a number of vestibular disorders.
How is nerve health assessed?
Understanding and measuring your nerve health is not as straightforward as with grip strength and balance. Your peripheral nerves are responsible for responding to stimuli in the forms of things like touch, temperature or color, and relaying that info to your brain. Though at-home testing is limited, you can now get a snapshot of your overall health from certain Withings smart scales. Withings Body Comp and Body Scan smart scales contain technology that makes it possible to measure this response through the sweat glands located on the bottom of your feet and produce an Electrodermal Activity Score, or EDA. Your nerves are highly important and you may be able to detect potential nerve damage if you know what to look for. That’s why you might want to monitor your EDA and watch for symptoms of tingling, weakness or general pain in any part of your body, but more likely beginning in your hands/feet.
How do nerve health and aging affect each other?
The function of our nervous system declines as we age. The amount of neurons (nerve cells) working in our brain begins to go down over time. The brain tries to compensate for this loss by forming new connections between the remaining cells, and by focusing production of new cells in areas that really need it- typically areas that direct memory and movement. Recent research completed at Harvard Medical School is offering the first evidence that neural activity in our brains can impact longevity. The study, which examined mice, worms and humans, came to the conclusion that a specific protein, aptly named “REST”, is able to suppress overactivity in the brain, and can actually extend lifespans. This excitation in the brain can happen due to a number of factors, and scientists are still discovering how it relates to more complex functions.
How can I improve my nerve health?
The good news is we can actually help out our brain in the effort to preserve our nervous system function! Much like grip strength and balance, regular exercise can help reduce the death of nerve cells. Taking care of your cardiovascular health through diet and activity choices is also crucial, as blood flow to the brain can decrease as we get older. In terms of general lifestyle, some tips to preserve your nervous system function and “slow down” aging are: get in the sunlight, make sure you’re sleeping well, and try to pay attention to the quality/types of foods you are eating. Be sure to keep your mind engaged doing the things you love, and trying new things too. Yet with all that being said, it’s great to stay busy, but breaks are just as vital. You can calm those over-excited neurons by practicing being calm and mindful–and most of all, always listen to your body.
So, we hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know these three health parameters that seem to correlate to longevity. The good news is that for each one, there are steps you can take right now to better understand and improve your metrics, so you can enjoy a longer, happier life.