Can your handgrip strength predict cancer?

The amount of handgrip strength (HGS) someone has has previously been found to be linked with a number of different health outcomes, but up until recently the evidence for predicting cancer has been scarce. However, a more recent study published in PubMed involving over 445,000 participants from the UK Biobank has demonstrated that grip strength is associated with risk of several site-specific cancers and all-cause cancer.

An earlier 2018 study published in the BMJ looked at associations of grip strength with cardiovascular, respiratory, and cancer outcomes and all cause mortality, showed that grip strength is strongly and inversely associated with all cause mortality and incidence of:

  • mortality from cardiovascular disease,
  • respiratory disease,
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,
  • all cancer, and
  • subtypes of cancer, including
  • colorectal, lung, and breast cancer, with
  • associations being modestly stronger in the younger age groups.

Handgrip strength (HGS) is a diagnostic marker for many health conditions

Their results showed that adding handgrip strength when assessing risk scores improved the prediction ability for all cause mortality and incidence of and mortality from cardiovascular disease. Muscle weakness is associated with poorer health outcomes. Grip strength may be useful in screening for risk of cardiovascular disease in community/rural settings and in developing countries where access to biochemical measurements (such as total cholesterol) is not possible. Further work is needed to define how to use grip strength in this manner, in particular in non-British populations.

Why is muscle so important for total health?

We all know that muscle controls body movements by generating of force. However, skeletal muscle is also the primary protein store within the body and in chronic conditions, such as cancer, it can provide nutrients that are crucial for survival. Skeletal muscle is also the main target for glucose disposal in the body and so helps to maintain metabolic conditions such as sugar levels. Muscle mass is also decreased (a condition known as cachexia) in many conditions, such as cancer, respiratory disease, chronic kidney disease, and chronic infection and sepsis. Taking all of these factors into consideration it is clear that skeletal muscle has a critical, but often underrated, role in health.

The PubMed study reports that, "Eight cancer sites were inversely associated with HGS relative to weight and BMI" The eight types of cancer included:

The report says, "Compared with absolute grip strength, grip strength relative to body fat mass had better discriminatory power for head and neck and breast cancer. Grip strength relative to BMI was marginally better than absolute grip strength in predicting stomach cancer."

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Small pear-shaped organ that sits under the liver and that stores bile. Full medical glossary
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Tissue made up of cells that can contract to bring about movement. Full medical glossary
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the organ or the body where food is stored and broken down Full medical glossary
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