Our world is made for hands and fingers that need strength, flexibility and touch to lift, turn, press, pull, grip, twist, manipulate, tap and hold things every day. It’s important to maintain your manual dexterity as you age.

As a senior, you may have noticed that your hands and fingers have lost some of their capabilities. There are many reasons that would explain why this could have occurred.

Aging Hands and Fingers

For many, manual dexterity seems to remain stable until about age 65. However, one of the most common changes that occur throughout the body is sarcopenia, or the reduction of muscle mass. In the hands and forearms, this causes the loss of grip strength, which according to the National Library of Medicine is directly related to hand dexterity.

The tensile strength (the maximum stress a structure can sustain) of the tendons in the hand, which is what attaches muscle to bone, decreases by 30 to 50 percent with aging.

Older hands and fingers are especially prone to osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. This results in pain, swelling, joint deformities, bone spur formation, restricted ranges of motion of wrist and fingers, and the ability to grip and pinch objects. And, after age 50, the bone density of the hand tends to decrease, causing a decline in manual dexterity. Consult with your physician if you feel that you are suffering from one or more of these conditions.

The number and diameter of nerve fibers also decrease, and there is a reduction in the number of nerve cells that signal muscles to contract and relax.

However, there are exercises and activities that you can perform to maintain or potentially enhance the health and function of your hands and fingers. However, please consult with your physician before starting these exercises.

Boards with locks and latches. These activity boards are mounted with various everyday objects like chain bolts, sliding bolts, padlocks with keys, buckles, faucet handles, and switches, which require fine motor skills, finger dexterity, and eye-hand coordination to manipulate.

Work with clay or putty. Using clay or hand-therapy putty, squeeze with each hand and roll it back and forth. Pinch the putty between thumbs and forefingers. Fold it into different shapes, Resistance to the clay or putty strengthens your hands and fingers.

Make a fist. Make a fist and squeeze hard inward. Hold for three to five seconds, and release slowly. Do the same with each hand multiple times until you start to feel tired to increase hand strength and dexterity.

Give the “OK” sign. Begin with your hand up and straight (like you were going to shake someone’s hand). Create an “O” shape by touching your thumb to your index fingertip. Next touch your thumb to your middle fingertip. Make this movement through to the rest of your fingers. Repeat multiple times, and then switch and repeat with the opposite hand.

Try finger lifts. Start with your hand palm-side down on a table. Lift your thumb slowly off the table, and hold for two seconds. Gently lower your thumb back down. Repeat for each finger, and then repeat the sequence on the opposite hand.

Practice thumb bends. Begin by holding up one hand with fingers straightened. Bend your thumb downward in the direction of your palm. The goal is to reach for the bottom of your pinky finger (don’t worry if you can’t reach that far). Hold the bend for a few seconds, then return to the starting position. Repeat a few times, and then switch to your other hand.

Perform wrist stretches.  Extend your right arm in front of you with your palm facing toward the floor. Bend your wrist, pointing the tips of your fingers toward the floor. With your left hand, gently bend your wrist toward you until you feel a mild to moderate stretch in your forearm. Hold this position for at least 15 to 30 seconds, switch to your left arm and then repeat two to four times. (If you are experiencing numbness or tingling in your hands, you should be evaluated by a physician.)

Sew. Sewing involves very precise movements along with grasping and manipulating small objects. This is a great manual dexterity activity.

Enjoy origami. The direct translation of the word “origami” in Japanese is fold paper. There are many different types of origami and many books and online guides to learning this hobby which works both the head and the hands in creating beautiful designs. https://origami.me/beginners-guide/

Manual dexterity is crucial to living independently. For tips on aging in place, visit Bethesda’s independent living blog.