Can grip strength predict a child’s future cardiovascular health?

A study published in Pediatrics suggests adolescent muscle weakness measured by grip strength is a predictor of unhealthy outcomes, including cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.

While previous studies have suggested similar results in adults, this research, led by Paul M. Gordon, PhD, of Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, is the first to study grip strength specifically in adolescents. Gordon and colleagues sought to determine the effects of muscle strength, as determined by grip strength, on changes in health in adolescents.

"This study gives multiple snapshots over time that provide more insight about grip strength and future risks for developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease," Gordon said in a prepared statement. "Low grip strength could be used to predict cardiometabolic risk and to identify adolescents who would benefit from lifestyle changes to improve muscular fitness." 

The researchers used elementary school-aged students who are part of the ongoing Cardiovascular Health Intervention Program study in Southern Maine. The study followed 368 students from the fourth to the fifth grade.

A grip strength test using a handgrip dynamometer was administered to the students at baseline. Approximately 28 percent of the boys and 20 percent of the girls were classified as having weak grips. The researchers found that adolescents with weak grips were more than three times as likely to decline in health or maintain poor health than those who had strong grips.

After adjusting for other metabolic risk factor indicators such as physical activity, cardiorespiratory fitness, the proportions of fat and fat-free mass, blood pressure readings, family history, fasting blood lipids and glucose levels, the researchers still found an independent association between grip strength and cardiometabolic health maintenance and health improvements.

Gordon also noted there is not a “drastic improvement” in an individual’s health who had a strong grip beforehand and obtained a stronger grip later. Those who have poor grip strength and improve it have more significant improvements in health. Therefore, in addition to a nutritious diet and aerobic activity, emphasis should also be placed on muscular strength for the development of good cardiovascular health.

"Given that grip strength is a simple indicator for all-cause death, cardiovascular death and cardiovascular disease in adults, future research is certainly warranted to better understand how weakness during childhood tracks into and throughout adulthood," Gordon concluded. "Testing grip strength is simple, non-invasive and can easily be done in a health care professional's office. It has value for adults and children."