A new study of muscle strength in older men and women has revealed a link between lower grip strength and the speed of biological aging. The results support grip strength measurement as a tool for early clinical intervention, investigators say.

Researchers from the University of Michigan recorded measures of molecular aging and muscle strength in 1,274 middle aged and older adults from the 2006 to 2008 waves of the Health and Retirement Study. Over eight to 10 years of follow-up, they tracked handgrip strength (a standardized measure of muscle strength) and biological age using DNA methylation clocks, which use molecular biomarkers to help estimate the pace of aging.

Strong evidence

There was a “robust association” between lower grip strength and biological age acceleration for both sexes across the DNA methylation clocks, lead author Mark Peterson, PhD, reported.

The new evidence suggests that maintaining muscle strength over the lifespan may help protect against many common age-related diseases and slow the speed of aging, he said.

“We’ve known that muscular strength is a predictor of longevity, and that weakness is a powerful indicator of disease and mortality, but for the first time we have found strong evidence of a biological link between muscle weakness and actual acceleration in biological age,” said Peterson, an associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation.

Powerful predictor

Like smoking, muscle strength could be a powerful predictor of disease and mortality, he added. “Now we know that muscle weakness could be the ‘new smoking,’” said Peterson, an associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation.

There has been some adoption among geriatricians of grip strength as a measure of various aspects of health, but it is not in widespread use for this purpose, Peterson noted. He and his colleagues are encouraging clinicians to incorporate it into clinical care, he said.

“Screening for grip strength would allow for the opportunity to design interventions to delay or prevent the onset or progression of these adverse age-related health events,” he said. “[N]ot many people are using this, even though we’ve seen hundreds of publications showing that grip strength is a really good measure of health.”

One major strength of the study is its many years of observation, said co-author Jessica Faul, PhD, of UM and the Michigan Center on the Demography of Aging in Ann Arbor.

Full findings were published in the Journal of Cachexia and Muscle.

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