Sarcopenia or age related muscle loss is a serious condition which doesn’t often make the headlines and therefore can often be ignored. Many people are aware that with ageing often comes loss of bone density or osteoporosis but it would appear that the same awareness of sarcopenia or age related muscle loss is not apparent.
From the time you are born to around the time you turn 30, your muscles grow larger and stronger. But at some point in your 30s, you begin to lose muscle mass and function, a condition known as age-related sarcopenia. People who are physically inactive can lose as much as 3 to 5% of their muscle mass per decade after the age of 30. Even if you are active, you will still experience some muscle loss.
Any loss of muscle mass is of real consequence because loss of muscle can mean loss of strength and mobility and independence. Sarcopenia generally accelerates around the age of 75 although it may happen in people aged from 65 to 80 and it leads to frailty and increases the likelihood of falls and fractures.
Symptoms and Causes of Sarcopenia
Symptoms of muscle loss include musculoskeletal weakness and loss of stamina which can lead to a reduction in physical activity. This reduced physical activity in turn further reduces muscle mass. Although sarcopenia is mostly seen in people who are inactive, the fact that it also occurs in people who stay active suggests that there are other factors involved in the development of the condition.
Researchers believe that the following factors play a role:
- Age-related reduction in nerve cells responsible for sending signals from the brain to the muscles to initiate movement.
- A decrease in the concentrations of some hormones, including growth hormone, testosterone and insulin-like growth factor.
- A decrease in the body’s ability to synthesize protein.
- Inadequate intake of calories and/or protein to sustain muscle mass.
How to reduce the risk of sarcopenia
Here are some key ways to help stave off the condition:
Take gentle weight-bearing exercise
Exercise is critically important in preventing and managing sarcopenia. Exercise stimulates the release of hormones that promote healthy muscle mass. Although any exercise is better than none, weight bearing or resistance exercise is especially beneficial in the preservation of muscle mass.
Resistance training or strength training with weights or resistance bands has been shown to be useful in both the prevention and treatment of sarcopenia. Research has shown that a programme of progressive resistance training exercises can increase protein synthesis, hormone concentrations and the condition of the neuromuscular system. Lifting or carrying weights can easily be incorporated into your everyday routine.
A new study by experts at Liverpool Hope University concluded that it’s never too late to start lifting weights and it could be vital in maintaining your health in old age. The team conducted a short four month programme of weight based exercise on a group of 100 adults, aged 60 and over and saw incredible improvements in muscle strength of up to 60%.
PhD researcher Kate Mooney says combatting muscle wastage will be vital in tackling a whole host of diseases associated with the UK’s ageing population. She went on to say:
“Losing mobility is one of the most debilitating issues facing older adults and exercise could help prevent this.
“But resistance exercise – designed to increase muscle strength as well as functional ability and physical performance – could have a significant impact on prevention of age-related diseases.
“Older adults should be taking part in a combination of weight based training and aerobic exercise at least two to three times per week as per NHS recommendations. And it’s never too late to begin!”
The participants in the study used weight training equipment in a gym but you can improvise by making your own weights if you don’t have dumbbells or hand weights. Tinned foods fit perfectly in your hands and are especially good if you are just starting out. Empty plastic milk containers can be filled with water. Use the handle to lift and lower just as you would with a dumbbell.
Eat more protein
Protein is the building block for muscle growth and maintenance. But as we age our muscle tissues tend to break down at a faster rate than new muscle is formed. Therefore many nutritional experts recommend a higher intake of dietary protein for older people. This can come from a variety of sources including meats such as turkey, chicken and beef, fish and dairy products.
Protein from milk and cheese has the added benefit of helping to keep the bones healthy and strong. Other sources of protein include almonds, pumpkin seeds, peanut butter, beans and soya.
Boost vitamin D levels
Everybody’s muscles need vitamin D in order to work efficiently. It has an impact on the processing of proteins in the body. Most of our vitamin D comes from exposure to sunlight so it is important to try to get out into the sun for short periods.
Optimum times for vitamin D production are between 11am and 3pm during the months between April and October. Sadly in the UK, winter sunlight is not strong enough to trigger enough vitamin D production so boosting it with dietary sources is crucial.
Eggs, meat and oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines are all rich in vitamin D. Supplements can also be useful in maintaining levels of this vital nutrient.
Dr Andrea Darling and Professor Susan Lanham-New from the University of Surrey talked recently about the need to boost our vitamin D levels whilst self isolating. If you have an outside space, try to get out, especially on a bright day and expose your face and hands to the sunlight. They also recommended adding a few of the following foods to our diets if at all possible:
- Oily fish such as sardines, mackerel and salmon
- Breakfast cereals which are fortified with Vitamin D
- Milk alternatives which are fortified
Top up your intake of zinc and magnesium
Both of these minerals have a role to play in supporting the healthy function of the muscles. Both are available in supplement form or can be obtained from food sources. Zinc is found in shellfish, beef, lamb. dairy foods and even dark chocolate. Magnesium can be found in leafy green vegetables, nuts, brown rice, wholegrain bread and fish.
Ensure you get enough sleep
The combination of being overtired and the reduction in muscle mass can lead to falls and accidents. Therefore it is vital to get between seven and eight hours sleep each night. A day filled with activity will assist in ensuring a good night’s sleep.
Studies are being carried out as to the effectiveness of hormone replacement therapy, testosterone supplementation and growth hormone supplementation in treating the condition. If found useful, these would complement the effects of resistance exercise, not replace them.
Finally, as it is far easier to prevent or slow the progression of muscle loss than it is to treat it later in life, it makes sense to begin your sarcopenia prevention regime today.
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