As people age, it is normal to lose muscle strength and slow down, making routine activities more difficult.
However, a new study by Edith Cowan University (ECU) suggests this decline in muscle function might also indicate a more serious health concern: late-life dementia.
The researchers utilized data from the Perth Longitudinal Study of Aging in Women to investigate the relationship between muscle function and dementia.
They assessed more than 1000 women, averaging 75 years of age.
In collaboration with the University of Western Australia, they measured the women’s grip strength and the time it took them to rise from a chair, walk three meters, turn around, and sit back down—a timed-up-and-go (TUG) test. The tests were repeated after five years.
Over the next 15 years, almost 17% of the women were found to have had a dementia event, such as a dementia-related hospitalization or death.
Lower grip strength and slower TUG test results were significant risk factors for dementia, irrespective of genetic risk and lifestyle factors like smoking, alcohol intake, and physical activity levels.
Women with the weakest grip strength and the slowest TUG test results were more than twice as likely to experience a late-life dementia event compared to the strongest and quickest individuals, respectively.
The researchers also found that a decline in grip strength and TUG test performance over five years was linked to higher dementia risk.
An early warning
Senior researcher Dr. Marc Sim explained that grip strength, measurable using a handheld device called a dynamometer, might be an indicator of brain health due to the overlapping nature of cognitive and motor decline.
Grip strength may also serve as a surrogate measure for cardiovascular disease, inflammation, and frailty—known risk factors for dementia.
Dr. Sim believes these findings could aid health professionals in identifying dementia risk earlier.
He said, “Incorporating muscle function tests as part of dementia screening could be useful to identify high-risk individuals, who might then benefit from primary prevention programs aimed at preventing the onset of the condition such as a healthy diet and a physically active lifestyle.”
While the findings are promising, Dr. Sim emphasized that further research is needed. The study suggests that halting the decline in grip strength and TUG performance may help prevent late-life dementias.
Professor Simon Laws, the Director of the Centre for Precision Health, also noted encouraging progress in identifying early warning signs of dementia.
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The study was published in the Journal of Cachexia, Sarcopenia, and Muscle.
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