When a limp handshake may be an early sign of depression

There is thought to be a link between having a weak handshake and being at risk of undiagnosed depression according to a new study, writes Pat Hagan


In the future, doctors may be able to tell if a patient has depression simply by shaking their hand


COULD the strength of your handshake determine whether you are at risk of depression?

According to a major new study there’s a good chance it can — meaning doctors may in future be able to tell if a patient is in the early stages of the condition simply by shaking their hand.

For the study, researchers at Yonsei University College of Medicine in South Korea tracked more than 51,000 adults and found those who had a weaker grip were up to three times more likely to have undiagnosed depression than those with firmer handshakes.

Doctors recorded each participant’s grip score and then got them to complete an assessment of their mental health.

This involved agreeing or disagreeing with statements such as "I am bothered by things that don’t usually worry me" and "I felt everything I did was an effort".

When researchers analysed the results, they found those with weaker handshakes were nearly three times more likely to strongly agree with the statements.

Why is not clear, but one theory is that having a softer grip can be a marker for poorer overall physical strength, caused by the lack of physical activity — often a hallmark of deteriorating mental wellbeing.

Beyond psychological health, a patient’s handshake has already been shown to give insight into their likelihood of developing dementia, heart disease and even — in men — erectile dysfunction.

Grip strength varies considerably throughout our lives, peaking in our late 20s before gradually declining as we age.

For example, a man aged 25 to 30 should be able to score 40kg to 50kg on a grip-strength test, where you clench a spring-loaded hand-held device as hard as possible.

The score is the measure of the force exerted. For a woman who is the same age, the target is 25 to 30kg. But by the time they have reached the age of 70, this will have dropped to 35 to 40kg for a man and around 20kg for a woman.

Grip strength varies considerably during our lives. Handshakes offer insight to the likelihood of developing dementia and heart disease

That’s because of sarcopenia — the gradual loss of muscle mass and strength as part of the natural ageing process — that begins from around the age of 40 but speeds up after the age of 65, although the rate at which it progresses varies from person to person.

Doctors already use the hand-grip test to track frailty in old age among those thought to be at risk of suffering falls that could lead to life-changing fractures of joints such as the hip.

Some researchers now believe that waning grip strength — as an easy-to-measure sign of sarcopenia — could act as a useful early warning alarm for doctors. They could then intervene with lifestyle advice, such as strength training to restore muscle power to those at risk of general frailty.

Having a softer grip can also serve as red flag for a range of diseases.

A 2018 study by Soonchunhyang University College of Medicine in South Korea, published in the journal Medicine, found that people aged from 40 to 79 with the weakest grip were two to three times more likely to develop heart disease than those who had the strongest holds. Another study, by researchers at Southern Medical University in Guangzhou, China, published this month in Alzheimer’s Research and Therapy, found that older adults with a firm handshake were 55 per cent less likely to develop dementia than those with limp grips.

Poor physical function — such as weak grip and slow walking — has been shown in other studies to be an early warning of dementia.

And a 2018 study by Chonnam National University Medical School in South Korea, published in the journal Ageing Male, revealed that men with the firmest handshake were nearly 20 per cent less likely to develop erectile dysfunction.

Again, it’s thought good hand strength is a sign of high levels of overall fitness — a key factor for healthy libido.

All of the volunteers taking part in the depression study — which involved people from six countries, including the UK — had a previous diagnosis of depression and were aged over 45.

Each one underwent a grip-strength test using a device called a dynamometer, which is held with the hand in much the same way as holding a glass.

With the elbow tucked into the side, the device is then squeezed for about five seconds to measure handshake strength.

The researchers said: "Timely assessment of hand-grip strength may help with early detection of the risk of depression among middle-aged and older adults."

Carmine Pariante, a professor of biological psychiatry at King’s College London, said the latest findings on grip strength and mental health confirmed that the two are linked.

But he added that shaking hands? is unlikely to be a suitable replacement for a proper psychiatric assessment.

"Muscular strength is reduced in people with depression, and this research is important in stressing the tight relationship between mental and physical health," he said.

"But skilful questions about how people feel are still the most important tool to identify who has? depression.

"Also, people with depression should be helped to maintain a healthy, strong body, especially in adulthood and old age — with physical exercise and a diet rich in fish and vegetables."

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