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  • A new study has found that handgrip strength may be associated with cognitive decline.
  • Further studies are needed to find out how the two may be related.
  • The study underlines previous findings on the benefits of physical exercise in trying to reduce the risk of age-related cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

The number of factors that may be tied to an increased likelihood of dementia and other forms of cognitive impairment is continuing to grow.

Handgrip strength — a measure of how strongly someone can grip something and an indication of the health of their hands and arms — may be another thing to add to the list.

In a new study, researchers have concluded that poor grip strength may be an indicator of cognitive impairment, which can be a sign of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

Each 5 kilogram reduction in grip strength — for reference, a 30-year-old man has a grip strength of about 40 kg on average — was associated with an 18 percent greater chance of severe cognitive impairment, the study stated.

The researchers concluded that doctors might consider looking at grip strength in assessments of cognitive function.

However, the question is still unsettled on how important grip strength may be in predicting cognitive decline relative to other factors, including some that might cause both reduced grip strength and reduced cognitive abilities simultaneously.

“I’d personally encourage physicians to include grip strength is assessing cognitive function,” said Ryan McGrath, PhD, a professor at North Dakota State University’s College of Human Sciences and Education and lead author of the new study. “But as a field we might not quite be there yet.”

McGrath added that, regardless, measuring grip strength could be included in routine health assessments of older patients.

“It’s a simple, noninvasive measure — just grasping and squeezing,” he told Healthline.

But he added that further studies are needed since grip strength appears to be associated with both the muscular system and the neural system.

“It’s associated with quite a bit,” McGrath said.

That makes the connection between grip strength and cognitive decline a bit less clear.

“Low handgrip strength is associated with cognitive impairment, but it could be the other way around,” he said. “So there might be a third factor, such as age.”

The goal of future studies would be to find out what those factors are, he said.

This study isn’t the first to find a link between grip strength and cognitive decline.

A 2012 study found that weaker grip strength was associated with lower memory, language, and cognitive abilities in people 65 or older. That study also found that slower walking speed, or “gait” speed, was associated with those reductions.

Experts say the overall conclusion may be that physical fitness is a possible way to reduce Alzheimer’s risk.

“Similar to the associations previously reported in studies of gait problems and worsening cognition, grip strength is most likely a proxy for something else, such as overall health and vitality,” Heather Snyder, PhD, vice president of medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer’s Association, told Healthline.

Snyder noted that the study points out other factors that might raise the chances of cognitive impairment more than grip strength, including being male, black, or Hispanic, or being a smoker or having depression.

Instead of grip strength, she suggests people focus on a more “holistic approach.”

“That means a broader array of physical activity including cardio, strength training, and flexibility,” Snyder said. “But also thinking beyond exercise to include healthy habits like continuing to learn new things, staying socially connected, and eating a healthful diet. All these done together may be the best strategy for reducing risk of cognitive decline as we age.”

A study presented earlier this month suggested 30 minutes of exercise a day five times a week can reduce the odds of physical signs, known as biomarkers, associated with Alzheimer’s.

A study last year found patients with a rare early-onset form of the disease showed fewer signs of Alzheimer’s if they exercised at least 2.5 hours a week.

“A healthy lifestyle, especially early in life, could help to decrease” cognitive problems, McGrath said.

Still, if you happen to have a dynamometer lying around, it probably couldn’t hurt to measure your grip strength from time to time if you’re worried about losing cognitive abilities.

“If you had a proper assessment and properly perform it, it’s certainly simple enough that if you monitored it over time and you see drastic changes in the grip strength, that could be a sign [of cognitive decline],” McGrath said.

It’s likely not enough to make predictions about cognitive decline on its own though.

“Grip strength is robust, but it’s a single biomarker,” McGrath said.