Age-related muscle loss is one of greatest health issues for older adults. Up to a third of people over 50 experience sarcopenia – the age-related loss of muscle mass and strength. This can lead to many other health complications. However, it can also be prevented and managed with just a few simple interventions.
Why maintaining muscle mass is important
Sufficient muscle mass is essential for health and wellbeing at any age. One of the key roles of muscle is utilisation of carbohydrates for energy production. More muscle mass means more is used for energy, instead of being stored as fat.
Muscle mass can protect against conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature ageing and poor cognitive function. Unfortunately, many older adults experience sarcopenia, which increases the risk of illness and injury.
What is muscle loss?
When people are inactive for any reason, muscle can waste away. This is known as muscle atrophy or muscle loss.
One of the most common causes of muscle loss is ageing. There are multiple factors that cause age-related muscle loss. It’s believed that a reduction of testosterone and growth hormone combined with an increase in pro-inflammatory cytokines play a big role (1).
There are other causes of muscle loss aside from ageing. Significant injuries, malnutrition, stroke, long-term steroid use and general inactivity can all lead to atrophied muscles. Conditions that restrict movement can also contribute.
Unfortunately, muscle loss can have a significant impact on health and wellbeing.
How does muscle loss affect health?
Muscle loss can negatively impact on health in a number of ways. By losing muscle mass, people are likely to gain body fat instead. This is due to the reduced carbohydrate usage by the muscles, leading to more energy being stored as fat.
People may also experience stiffer joints with muscle loss. This will make it harder for them to move around, which contributes further to muscle loss and fat gain.
This may lead to other health conditions and complications, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and arthritis. Many of these can become serious or even fatal if left untreated. It is essential to intervene in the early stages of muscle loss, to slow or even reverse the process.
How to beat age-related muscle loss
It’s possible to halt and even reverse muscle loss through simple interventions. By using the right nutrition and exercise, muscles can grow and regain strength.
One of the most important interventions is to consume sufficient protein to meet dietary needs. Research suggests that eating similar quantities at each meal is more effective than a large intake in one meal (2).
Keeping physically active is essential for maintaining muscle mass. Even small, regular movement can help in those with limited movement. Research has demonstrated that even 15 minutes of cardiovascular exercise can stimulate muscle growth (3).
Ideally, resistance exercise is included so that muscle strength can be restored. One study demonstrated that just 3 resistance-training sessions per week for 12 weeks could increase muscle strength (4).
These interventions are inexpensive but highly effective in preventing and reversing age-related muscle loss.
Sarcopenia and muscle loss can cause many health issues. However, simple interventions such as nutrition and exercise provide a safe, easy and effective way to prevent and reverse muscle loss.
- Ryall, James G., Jonathan D. Schertzer, and Gordon S. Lynch. “Cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying age-related skeletal muscle wasting and weakness.” Biogerontology 9.4 (2008): 213-228.
- Paddon-Jones, Douglas, and Blake B. Rasmussen. “Dietary Protein Recommendations and the Prevention of Sarcopenia: Protein, Amino Acid Metabolism and Therapy.” Current opinion in clinical nutrition and metabolic care 12.1 (2009): 86–90. PMC. Web. 25 Aug. 2017.
- Mason, Caitlin, et al. “Influence of diet, exercise and serum vitamin D on sarcopenia in post-menopausal women.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise 45.4 (2013): 607.
- Reid, Kieran F., et al. “Lower extremity power training in elderly subjects with mobility limitations: a randomized controlled trial.” Aging clinical and experimental research 20.4 (2008): 337.