Age brings with it wisdom, mastery in your field and the ability to spot a good bargain. In the realm of health, however, longer life may also bring with it a condition called sarcopenia. Sarcopenia is the age-related loss of skeletal muscle mass and function. The name is relatively new, having been coined in 1989, and it literally means loss of flesh . Creepy name notwithstanding, it’s an important condition we all need to learn more about. Namely, what are its effects, what are its causes, and how we can avoid it?
What is Sarcopenia?
Sarcopenia can be understood by knowing its symptoms. They include decreased mobility, physical inactivity, slow gait speed, poor endurance, weakness and early death. In fact, one meta-analysis of 3,797 people suggested an increased risk of mortality for individuals diagnosed with sarcopenia versus those without it .
While has been a lot of research on sarcopenia’s effects, there is currently no generally accepted clinical definition of it. Many work from the definition crafted by the European Working Group on Sarcopenia in Older People (EWGSOP) who, along with other groups, reached a consensus on what objective measures to use to diagnose sarcopenia :
- Presence of low skeletal muscle mass and low muscle strength or low muscle performance.
- Walking speed and grip strength are used to measure strength.
- Low is classified as muscle mass estimated to be two standard deviations below a normal young person’s average.
At first glance, sarcopenia may resemble what we assume will happen to us all as we age. However, it is a specific condition which affects 14% of people aged 65-70 and 53% of people above the age of 80 . These percentages are significant, but sarcopenia is not inevitable if the right steps are taken.
How does Sarcopenia develop?
The problem is that as we age we lose muscle mass. Many of us are on track to lose 3% to 5% every decade after 30. In fact, most men will lose about 30% of their muscle mass during their lifetime. The causes for this are varied and include obesity, diabetes, inadequate nutrition and a decline in hormone levels .
Testosterone is one of the hormones that naturally declines as we get older. It, along with human growth hormone, are key to stimulating protein synthesis and muscle growth. As their levels drop so does our ability to create new muscle mass. Though testosterone is thought of as a male hormone, the drop in its production occurs in women as well, creating the same dip in muscle production.
“As we get older we tend to be less involved in physical activities. Moving our bodies, however, is exactly how we create more muscle.”
What you eat also plays a huge role in whether or not you’ll show signs of sarcopenia. For one, eating healthy reduces the risk of obesity or diabetes, both key factors for sarcopenia. Secondly, our ability to synthesize protein diminishes with age. This is especially true for men, who experience a phenomenon called anabolic resistance when they get older. This lowers their bodies' ability to utilize protein.
One of the most important factors in advancing sarcopenia is inactivity. As we get older we tend to be less involved in physical activities. Moving our bodies, however, is exactly how we create more muscle. This can create a cycle where inactivity leads to weakness, making it more difficult to be physically active. The resulting muscle loss leads to more inactivity, and so on.
These factors all contribute to the break down of muscle mass that, when left unchecked, can lead to sarcopenia. Facing these challenges head-on may seem daunting, but with the right plan in place overcoming these issues—at any age—is possible.
Can we Increase muscle mass as we get older?
The causes of sarcopenia are many, but there are strategies that you can put in place to help you remain outside of that 14% of us that will develop sarcopenia as we move into our 60s.
Diet: Modifying your diet for long term health is key to decreasing your risk of sarcopenia. With our body’s ability to synthesize proteins reduced, we need to compensate by incorporating greater amounts of protein into our meals. Adding this extra protein into an overall better diet, balanced with quality carbs and fats, will also help boost the production of hormones that help build muscles, such as testosterone. Eating healthy improves your life in more ways than one. Add reducing the risk of sarcopenia to that list.
Sleep: To keep those hormones associated with muscle growth at healthy levels it’s also important to combine a good diet with good sleep. In men, about 70% of the body’s release of Human Growth Hormone happens as they sleep . This hormone stimulates muscle growth, while also strengthening bones and boosting heart health. As you get older, getting the proper amount of sleep becomes even more important.
Exercise: One of the most important and self-evident ways to produce more muscle is by exercising. Scientific studies reinforce this link and list regular physical activity as a protective factor in the prevention of sarcopenia . Although we tend to lose muscle mass as we get older, proper strength training exercises can push back against this trend, or even reverse it.
One study performed in 1994 backs this up by showing how a group of people were able to gain muscle mass even in their late 90s . This was done through a high-intensity, progressive regimen of resistance exercise training. The result was improved muscle strength and size, astonishingly, in individuals previously described “frail” and “elderly.”
Exercise also affects the connection between our brain and muscle fibres. The point of contact for this connection is called the neuromuscular junction and it’s turned on whenever our muscles contract. When we workout we enhance this connection, allowing us to more effectively use our muscles to prevent or treat sarcopenia .
Stopping Sarcopenia before it starts
It’s never too late to begin a plan that will help you fight sarcopenia. At the age of 80, the proper implementation of strength training exercises can still lead to muscle hypertrophy—an increase in the size of skeletal muscle . Personal training with a kinesiologist makes preventing sarcopenia easy.
At Symmetrix, our kinesiologists know how to optimize your movements to get the best performance from your muscles. Contact us today to learn how we can work together on a strength training plan that will keep you active, strong and healthy, at any age.
1 “Clinical definition of sarcopenia.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4269139/
2 “Systematic Literature Review and Meta-Analysis of the Association of Sarcopenia With Mortality.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26844538
3 “Physiology of growth hormone secretion during sleep.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8627466
4 “Exercise Training and Nutritional Supplementation for Physical Frailty in Very Elderly People” https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM199406233302501
5 “Sarcopenia in older adults" https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4066461/
6 “Role of the nervous system in sarcopenia and muscle atrophy with aging: strength training as a countermeasure” https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1600-0838.2009.01084.x