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Under the microscope: aging revealed by handshake strength

(JESUS PICHARDO / THE STATESMAN)
Handshakes can be an indicator of a person’s age. Warren Sanderson, an economics professor at SBU, and his collegue Sergei Scherbov studied handgrip strength. (JESUS PICHARDO / THE STATESMAN)

Every other week, Ruchi Shah, a junior biology major, will take a look at Stony Brook-related science and research news.

Handshakes have been used as a greeting for hundreds of years, but new research now uses handgrip strength as an accurate indicator of an individual’s age.

“Our main idea is that the study of aging has focused too much on age,” Warren Sanderson, a professor of economics at Stony Brook University, explained. “It sounds a bit strange, but we argue that in order to study aging, we have to focus on the characteristics of people, not just the number of birthdays they have had.”

Sanderson and his colleague Sergei Scherbov, the deputy program director of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), decided to use handgrip strength when they set out to better understand the speed of aging in educational subgroups in the United States.

The researchers could not use age as a comparative measure because while two individuals might have the same numerical age, the number does not account for differences in education, experience or physical characteristics.

Instead, Sanderson and Scherbov used handgrip strength because it is “an extremely good predictor of future mortality and morbidity…The handgrip strength of 18-year-olds is a good predictor of how long they are going to live and a good predictor of whether or not they will become disabled sometime along the way.”

The study used data from the Health and Retirement Survey (HRS), and subjects were divided into two education subgroups, those with less than a high school diploma and those with more education.

The researchers then used statistical analysis tools to compare differences in education levels to differences in handgrip strength and ultimately, differences in the aging process.

Sanderson and Scherbov’s results suggest that “at any fixed chronological age, more educated people have stronger handgrips than less educated people.”

For example, the handgrip strength of 65-year-old white male with less education was equivalent to the handgrip strength of about a 70-year-old white male with more education.

The results suggest that the more educated an individual is, the more slowly he or she ages.

Sanderson and his team are currently investigating factors that determine the speed of aging in several countries in an aim to better characterize the aging process.

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