If you're an older adult and you've noticed a loss of grip strength or that you're dropping things, then you should be concerned. Surprisingly though, grip strength exercises are NOT one of the best ways for seniors to improve their grip strength.
Fortunately, there are some other things that you can do to get a stronger grip.
Watch the video to learn why improving grip strength is so important for seniors, plus 4 ways to improve your grip strength that are better than doing grip strength exercises.
Table of Contents
- Why Grip Strength Is An Important Biomarker In Seniors
- Factors Associated With Grip Strength In Seniors
- Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Grip Strength In Seniors
- What Are Good Exercises To Improve Grip Strength?
- Spinal Stenosis and Grip Strength In Seniors
- Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and Grip Strength
- Need Help To Improve Your Grip Strength?
Why Grip Strength Is An Important Biomarker In Seniors
I think this is really important to mention because there was a recent viral video about 4 grip-strengthening exercises that seniors can use to improve their grip strength.
However, it's important to know that grip strength in older adults is a well-studied biomarker that goes much deeper into your overall health.
It's not just reflective of weakness in your forearm muscles or hand muscles or a need to do grip strength exercises.
So, I do want to set the record straight that grip strength is a very common issue in older adults, but it's much more reflective of your overall health.
To back up such an audacious claim, I'll share a few research articles that support this position.
Grip Strength: An Indispensable Biomarker For Older Adults
The first article from Clinical Interventions in Aging is about grip strength being an indispensable biomarker in older adults. (Bohannon, 2019)
It shows that grip strength is reflective of overall strength, upper limb function, bone mineral density, fractures, falls, malnutrition, cognitive impairment, depression, sleep problems, diabetes, multimorbidity, and quality of life.
Just squeezing a towel or doing other grip strength exercises is NOT going to do anything to improve those things.
So, doing grip strength exercises in this case is really treating the symptom rather than the underlying root causes.
Grip Strength in Older Adults and Cognitive Decline
Now, you can see from this next article from BMC Geriatrics about the role of gait speed and grip strength predicting ten-year cognitive decline in community-dwelling older people. (Chou et al, 2019)
The conclusion is basically that if you walk slow or you have a weak grip, you are more likely to have cognitive decline as you age.
Factors Associated With Grip Strength In Seniors
The next article from Age and Ageing is about factors associated with grip strength in older adults. (Sternäng, 2015)
Interestingly, these are different between men and women.
In this study, there were 849 participants age 55 to 88 who were part of the Swedish Adoption/Twin Study of Aging (SATSA). Essentially, these people have been studied their entire lives, so risk factors were measured up to 20 years before grip strength testing began. Then grip strength was measured over a 22 year period.
This is a crazy-strong research study. You don't see many studies with follow up periods that long. Therefore, the results are pretty trustworthy.
Factors affecting grip strength in women were stress, smoking, and dementia. For men, marital status, mean arterial pressure, physical activity at work, and having a chronic disorder were significant factors.
As you can see, these are much more predictive of overall health rather than just weak wrist, forearm, and hand muscles.
More About Low Hand Grip Strength In Senior Men and Women
Another article from BMC Public Health about factors associated with low hand grip strength in older people also found differences between men and women. (Amaral et al, 2020)
This article found that low-weight body mass index and anemia were associated with low grip strength in both men and women.
For men, diabetes was an important risk factor as well.
So the first tip to improve grip strength is proper diet.
Make sure you're getting enough iron in your diet to prevent anemia, keeping your sugars under control to prevent diabetes, and eating enough protein and overall calories to maintain a healthy (not too low) body weight.
Additionally, there was a higher chance of low grip strength in men with partners, smokers or former smokers, and people with a worse self-assessment of their overall health in the previous 12 months.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Grip Strength In Seniors
Given that diabetes and smoking are major factors that affect nerve health, it makes sense that these things would affect your grip strength.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is a major cause of grip strength weakness in people of all ages. However it peaks between ages 50–54 years and again between 75–84 years. (J Bland and S Rudolfer, 2003)
Just in case you don't know, the carpal tunnel is a little area in your wrist.
It's made up of the bones and a little ligament that goes over the top of it. The median nerve into the thumb, index, and middle fingers is affected with carpal tunnel syndrome.
If you have a pinched median nerve at your wrist, that's going to cause grip strength weakness.
However, no matter how many grip strength exercises you do, if the nerve is compressed, then you're not going to get any stronger.
That's because the signal is not getting from your brain to your muscles.
Therefore, it's important to make sure you check for carpal tunnel syndrome. It's also important to maintain adequate mobility in your wrist and carpal bones.
Read my post about Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Treatment.
In older adults, there are no age differences in subjective complaints in carpal tunnel syndrome. This means older people with carpal tunnel syndrome may not complain more about pain, numbness, tingling, or dropping things than younger individuals.
However, older adults had evidence of a more severe median nerve entrapment with clinical tests such as EMG or nerve conduction velocity test.
More severe compression of the median nerve can result in hand weakness or grip strength problems.
What Are Good Exercises To Improve Grip Strength?
Now, let's talk about exercises to improve grip strength.
I mentioned that doing grip strength exercises is probably an enormous waste of your time if you have grip weakness.
That's because it's really treating the symptom rather than the problem.
A meta-analysis published in Gerontology studied the effects of exercise training on hand grip strength in older adults. (Labott, 2019)
A meta-analysis is the strongest level of research. It pools findings from many different studies. Therefore, the findings of a meta-analysis are usually pretty valid findings.
This meta-analysis concluded that the effects of exercise training on grip strength were overall small but meaningful.
The things that were most helpful were task-specific and multimodal training programs.
Task-specific exercises are related to activities that you do in everyday life.
Multi-modal training means incorporating various types of exercise, like aerobic and strength training.
Isolated grip-strengthening exercises, such as squeezing a towel or a stress ball, are more or less a waste of time because anytime you train your upper body with weights, you're got to grip the weight.
Therefore, you're strengthening your grip anyway while also exercising other body parts at the same time.
Spinal Stenosis and Grip Strength In Seniors
One other thing that can affect grip strength in seniors is spinal stenosis in the neck (cervical spinal stenosis).
I mentioned that the median nerve can get compressed in the carpal tunnel.
The median nerve is made from nerve roots from your neck from C5-T1. However, it's the C7, C8, and T1 nerve roots that affect your grip the most.
If you have degenerative disc disease or spinal stenosis in your neck, that can pinch the nerve roots. That in turn can cause a decrease in grip strength.
Check out this video about spinal stenosis in the neck.
Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and Grip Strength
After your nerve roots leave your neck, they can also get compressed between your collarbone and first rib, a condition known as thoracic outlet syndrome.
Thoracic outlet syndrome can also cause a loss of grip strength. Learn exercises for thoracic outlet syndrome here.
In conclusion, a decrease in grip strength in seniors is a marker of decreased overall health. Just doing grip strength exercises is short-sighted and doesn't address the bigger overall health issues.
However, there are some things you can do to improve your grip strength.
In summary, the those are:
- Eat a proper diet with enough iron, protein, and overall calories while limiting excessive sugars.
- Don't smoke
- Get regular exercise including both aerobic as well as full-body strengthening exercises.
- Visit a healthcare professional to get assessed for neurological causes of poor grip strength such as carpal tunnel syndrome, spinal stenosis, and/or thoracic outlet syndrome.
Need Help To Improve Your Grip Strength?
If you live in the St. Louis area and need help to improve your grip strength, we'd be happy to help you here at More 4 Life.
Our specialist physical therapists will help you identify the underlying root causes of your grip weakness. Additionally, we'll help you improve your grip strength with exercises and other treatments that address the root cause of the problem rather than just the symptoms.
Tap the button below to request an appointment with one of our specialist physical therapists.