Healthy Hands For Life

Quality of life as we age depends on keeping our hands healthy. Here’s how to do it.

By Lauren Bedosky

Imagine a day without the use of your hands. Basic tasks like carrying laundry and opening your car door would be out of the question. And forget about the hobbies you love like cooking, playing the piano, knitting or pickleball!

It may sound dramatic, but many people have to navigate life with less-than-optimal hand function. Perhaps you’ve seen this in your own family. For me, it was my grand- father who used to play guitar on the holidays, but now leaves his instrument in its case. And my grandmother who can no longer help in the kitchen.

There can be many reasons this occurs, but for most, the blame is common age-related changes that cause hand strength and mobility to drop.

It Creeps in Slowly

It usually doesn’t happen right away. It creeps in slowly, starting with a minor twinge when you grip a golf club or trouble unscrewing the lid off a jar. But if you don’t take action, you can wind up in a vicious cycle of avoiding uncomfortable movements, causing your hand strength and mobility to further plummet. Soon, more and more functions become out of reach, so you stop doing those as well. The cycle continues until there’s little left for your hands to do.

You may be tempted to write it off as payment for years well-lived, and simply enjoy what function your hands have left. However, in most cases, you don’t have to be a victim of age. Health experts now know that certain physical and other activities can help you hold onto hand strength and mobility—regardless of how many candles are on your birthday cake.

So, if you want to keep up with the world around you and continue doing the things you love well into your golden years, then read on. We’ve got the top information from hand experts that you need to know to take care of those precious hands.

Fingers - Joint Health

Joints in your hands are known as synovial joints. Synovial fluid in your joints provides lubrication for the joint. However, inflammation, diabetes, poor diet and other lifestyle factors begin to breakdown joint synovial fluid as we age.

Your joints are covered by an elastic tissue known as cartilage. When everything works as it should, the cartilage cushions the joints and provides a slick surface for them to glide. This is what enables you to bend and straighten your fingers without issue.

But repetitive movements at work, or in a sport or hobby, or a history of hand injuries, can cause the cartilage to break down. When this happens, you can develop osteoarthritis (OA), a degenerative joint disease and the most common cause of hand stiffness and pain, per the Arthritis Foundation. 1 The more your cartilage wears away, the tougher and more painful repetitive activities such as typing or sewing become.

What Activities Can I Do To Keep My Hand Joints Healthy?

If you have arthritis, you may think that moving your hands will make matters worse for your joints, but as hand specialists tell us, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes, gentle physical activity is one of the best things you can do to improve pain and function.3

Exercises that move your wrist and fingers through their normal ranges of motion remind them how far they have to go and are especially helpful for improving stiffness and pain in people with arthritis

Even if you don’t have arthritis, daily range-of-motion exercises are essential for keeping the joints in your hands and fingers lubricated and mobile as we age. These exercises include wrist extension and flexion, wrist supination and pronation, wrist ulnar and radial deviation, thumb flexion and extension, and hand and finger tendon glide.

Fingers - Muscle Health

One of the realities of aging is a progressive loss of muscle tissue and strength as we get older—a condition known as sarcopenia. Beyond a certain age, our bodies have more trouble utilizing protein for our muscles to grow, causing our muscle cells to get smaller.4 It’s largely due to something called anabolic resistance, which lowers the body’s ability to break down and synthesize protein as we age. This is why seniors actually need more protein throughout their day, much more in fact, per pound of body weight than young people. As we age, we also make less testosterone and insulin-like growth factor, two hormones that play a key role in muscle growth.5

For most of us, the decline in muscle and strength begins around our fortieth birthday. It continues steadily, to the point where most lose a whopping 50% of muscle by age 80.6

What does this have to do with hands? Well, you usually see the first signs of sarcopenia in your hands—specifically in your grip. Your grip strength indicates how strong the rest of your body is. If you’re weak in your hands and arms, odds are you’re weak all over.

Unsurprisingly, losing hand muscle and strength can make daily tasks challenging. And you can forget about playing sports or keeping up with grandkids without strength. It’s even more important than muscle mass.

But grip strength goes deeper than just being able to wrench open a stubborn jar or keep hold of your golf club. An iron grip can mean you’re aging slower and healthier. In fact, a long-term, large-scale study in The Lancet concluded that grip strength is a reliable marker of longevity and a better predictor of heart disease than even systolic blood pressure. 7 Today, grip strength is used to gauge health status in older adults, with weaker grip strength signaling frailty. 8

How Can I Strengthen My Grip?

Even though you may not be able to halt all age-related changes that contribute to sarcopenia, you can significantly cut down on your loss by staying active and regularly challenging your grip.

To ease into a grip-strengthening routine, simply hold a 1- to 3-pound weight in your hand during these range-of-motion exercises every other day: wrist ex- tension and flexion, wrist supination/pronation, and wrist ulnar/radial deviation.

Squeezing therapy putty, a malleable material that adds resistance to hand exercis- es, is another great option. You can find the stuff at medical supply stores and online retailers. Start with the softest putty available and give these moves a go every other day: putty grip, putty key pinch, and putty three-point pinch.

Bottom Line on Hand Care

It’s always a good time for taking care of your hands. And it’s never too late nor too early to improve. Even if you’re already feeling aches and pains or losing your grip strength, you can still turn things around. The payoff—a long life of doing the things you love—is well worth the effort.

1Osteoarthritis. Arthritis Foundation.
2Osteoarthritis. Arthritis Foundation.
3Osteoarthritis (OA). CDC. Last reviewed July 27, 2020.
4Sarcopenia. Cleveland Clinic. Last reviewed June 3, 2022
5 Walston JD. Sarcopenia in Older Adults. Current Opnion in Rheumatology. November 2012. 6 Walston JD. Sarcopenia in Older Adults. Current Opnion in Rheumatology. November 2012.
7 Leong DP, Teo KK, Rangarajan S, et al. Prognostic value of grip strength: Findings from the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study. Lancet. 2015.
8 Bohannon R. Grip strength: An indispensable biomarker for older adults. Clinical Interventions in Aging. 2019.