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Preventing Age-Related Muscle Loss

Loss of muscle mass is common as we get older, and begins as early as age 30. Besides not being able to do things as easily as when you were younger, this common condition, known as sarcopenia, can lead to other problems.

But there are steps you can take to help reduce the decline in muscle mass, so our primary care doctors in Delray Beach want to share them with you.

What muscle loss means

Loss of muscle mass is one of the primary reasons for falls in older adults, which are the top cause of accidental death in those 65 and older. But age-related sarcopenia begins much sooner than that. Inactive individuals begin losing three percent to five percent of their muscle mass per decade beginning after age 30. This loss accelerates to 15 percent per decade as we reach our 50s, 60s, and 70s.

One study from the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research found that adults with sarcopenia had more than twice the risk of suffering a low-trauma fracture from a fall, such as a broken hip, leg, arm, collarbone, or wrist. Another study published in Ageing Research Reviews reported that in severe cases, those between the ages of 80 and 90 can lose as much as half their muscle mass.

And loss of muscle mass means loss of strength and loss of endurance, and trouble with such everyday tasks as carrying groceries, opening jars, or even getting up from a chair becomes more difficult. Strong muscles also help maintain balance, which is crucial for preventing falls.

Why muscle loss occurs

According to the Cleveland Clinic, an imbalance between two neurological signals involved in muscle growth becomes more pronounced with age. Like a tug of war, one response (the catabolic) sends a signal to reduce muscle size, while the other (anabolic) is telling the body to build up muscle. As we get older, the catabolic response begins to dominate, and muscles begin to shrink.

No one is certain why this happens, although some researchers attribute it to the natural decline of the hormone testosterone (an anabolic protein) in both men and women. This finding has led many to experiment with testosterone supplements as a way to add lean body mass.

But not only has this approach not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), supplementing with testosterone can also lead to such adverse effects as heart attack, heart failure, stroke, depression, hostility, aggression, and male infertility.

Turn to exercise

Regular exercise is so good for overall health that it’s probably the number one thing you can do to effect health outcomes. In the case of sarcopenia, you need a specific type of exercise, known as progressive resistance training (PRT), to slow and even reverse muscle loss. An additional benefit is that this type of exercise also helps fight bone weakening, or osteoporosis.

With this type of training, participants exercise their muscles against some type of resistance, such as free weights, exercise machines, or elastic bands. As strength improves, the resistance increases progressively, thereby building muscles.

PRT, combined with regular aerobic workouts, can make a big difference in maintaining muscle mass.

The good news is you don’t need to participate in a bodybuilding competition to reap the benefits. One study out of Tufts University found that previously sedentary people—those reporting fewer than 20 minutes of physical activity per week—saw the greatest benefits. Those who added at least 48 minutes of physical activity to their weekly routine experienced the greatest reduction in the risk of disability from sarcopenia.

To be safe, don’t just head to the gym. Consult an expert such as a physical therapist or exercise physiologist, who can design the right program for you.

Diet can help, too

In addition to regular exercise, nutrition has also been found to play a significant role in combating age-related muscle loss. 

Harvard Health reports that “protein is the king of muscle food,” and the older you are, the more you need. This is because another effect of age-related hormonal changes is a declining ability to turn protein into muscle.

Physical therapist Gary Calabrese, DPT, tells Harvard Health, “You can’t just exercise and not eat properly, and you can’t just eat properly and not exercise.”

To build muscle, he recommends a daily intake of 0.45 gram of protein per pound of body weight. For example, a person weighing 140 pounds should eat 63 grams of protein every day (140 x .45). Avoid red and processed meat, which is high in saturated fat, and obtain protein from milk, cheese, eggs, poultry, fish, peanuts, and beans.

  • Three ounces of skinless chicken contains 28 grams of protein. 
  • One cup of milk contains eight grams of protein.
  • One ounce (1/4 cup) of nuts contains four to six grams of protein.
  • Six ounces of plain, nonfat, light Greek yogurt contains 12-18 grams of protein.
  • One-half cup of cottage cheese contains 14 grams of protein.
  • One-half cup of Great Northern Beans contains 10 grams of protein.

You also need to include carbohydrates to provide energy for exercise. Middle-aged and older adults should not be on a low-carb diet, Calabrese says. Healthy carbohydrates include vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.

No matter how old you are, you can combat sarcopenia. But if you’re going to begin strength-training exercises, please do check with us first if this is a new type of workout for you.

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