There is an explosion of research going on around the subject of sarcopenia. Maybe you’ve not heard much about it and it certainly isn’t a typical topic brought up over cocktails with friends. But, if you are over 30, or have a friend or loved one who is, sarcopenia is something of which you should be aware.
And since I am well past 30 myself, and in the fitness business, the science and etiology of sarcopenia is of particular interest to me.
What is Sarcopenia (and Why You Should Care) (1)
We used to think that getting weaker and frailer as we age was ordinary…normal. 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 start to lose muscle mass and function. The cause is age-related sarcopenia.
Physically inactive people can lose as much as 3% to 8% of their muscle mass each decade after age 30. Even if you are active, you’ll still have some muscle loss.
Here are some contributors to age-related muscle loss.
- Insufficient caloric and/or protein intake to maintain muscle mass
- Decreasing capacity to convert protein into energy
- Reduction in hormones (growth hormone, testosterone, and insulin-like growth factor)
- Loss of nerve cells (myokines) that send signals from the brain to muscle initiate movement
Peak muscle mass occurs between the ages of 16 and 20 years in females and between 18 and 25 years in males unless affected by resistance exercise, diet, or both. Later right around age 50, things begin to really fall off. Testosterone, HGH, DHEA and fast-twitch muscle fibers start declining.
Sarcopenia’s Recent Recognition
Interestingly enough, the term “sarcopenia” wasn’t coined until 1988. Muscle was taken largely for granted by the scientific health community. The excuse was that this muscle loss was ordinary and normal.
Strength training is the #1 way to prevent and/or inhibit age-induced muscle loss. The pharmaceutical industry will never make a dime off a pill for sarcopenia. Thus it’s no surprise that sarcopenia has largely been ignored and brushed aside. That was 30 years ago. Things have changed since.
More research and focus is being given to sarcopenia today and it’s finding that muscle mass is key to maintaining our health and preventing disease as we get older.
Muscle Loss Causes Aging Difficulties
In the past, it was very common for us to assume that, of course, we were going to lose muscle and get weaker as we age! But as we learn and study more, we are finding that we are not hapless victims. That some simple and effective lifestyle changes can make a dramatic impact.
Envision your muscle mass as your body armor that protects against a bushel full of age-related diseases, including but not limited to heart problems, diabetes and cancer. Age-related muscle loss shares common disease characteristics with obesity, osteoporosis, frailty and fall and fracture risk.
The consequences of sarcopenia should alarm you: disability, quality of life impairments, falls, osteoporosis, dyslipidemia, an increased cardiovascular risk, metabolic syndrome, and immunosuppression. And, to make matters worse, sarcopenia is now directly linked to a decrease in cognition and brain function that may well be a contributing factor to dementia (2)
High-fat mass exacerbates sarcopenia’s adverse effects, making the symptoms and collateral diseases greatly pronounced. The condition of high-fat mass coupled with sarcopenia is known as sarcopenic obesity.
How to Combat and Prevent Sarcopenia
Despite all the risks and unfortunate realities of aging, with some hard work and discipline, sarcopenia’s effects can be limited, reduced and managed. Several, individual actions can be taken to fight age-related muscle loss. However, embracing a holistic approach that combines all of them provides better results.
The results are in and the evidence is clear, resistance training is the nmber 1 way to counter the effects of sarcopenia. In addition to offsetting decreases in muscle mass and combating age related sarcopenia, resistance training has been demonstrated to improve quality of life, activities of daily living, cardiovascular outcomes, metabolic outcomes, and more.
Diet and Nutrition
If proper diet and nutrition are super important when you’re young and strength training, they become vital as you age. It’s imperative to follow a regimented dietary pattern that guarantees fulfillment of protein requirements, antioxidant nutrients, and long-chain polyunsaturated fats.
Did I mention protein? The importance of protein can’t be understated as current research finds that our suggested daily protein requirement for people middle-aged and beyond comes up short. Eat more protein than you think you need.
Vitamin D gets a special call out. Even though you can fulfill your vitamin D intake via your diet, it’s important to note that skin exposure to the sun produces vitamin D as well. Not getting out in the sun decreases vitamin D, thus incurring weight gain risk, further lowering vitamin D production. It’s a downward spiral.
If you’re not getting sufficient vitamin D in your diet, get outside in the sun and be active.
It’s a fact: we’re going to get older. But what isn’t a fact is that we go down without a fight. As Thomas Dylan said: “Do not go gentle into that dark night… rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Don’t ever stop strength training. Help yourself avoid the inevitable decline that comes with age and make your future a better one. Don’t be ordinary…be extraordinary!
(1) Adapted from the Blog: Fringe Sport Adam Miezio: https://www.fringesport.com/blogs/news/muscle-loss-causes-aging-difficulties
(2) National Library of Medicine (NIH): https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31917049/