Julian Whitaker, MD
Grey hair, wrinkles, and poor eyesight'these signs of aging come on gradually but noticeably. The most profound change, however, creeps up on most of us unnoticed. It's the slow, unrelenting loss of skeletal muscle, called sarcopenia (vanishing flesh).
Grey hair, wrinkles, and poor eyesight these signs of aging come on gradually but noticeably. The most profound change, however, creeps up on most of us unnoticed. It's the slow, unrelenting loss of skeletal muscle, called sarcopenia (vanishing flesh).
The average person can expect to lose a quarter of muscle mass by age 70 and another quarter by age 90. Even if our weight doesn't change as we get older, our body composition does we have more fat and less muscle.
Though sarcopenia is not an actual disease, it is the backdrop against which disease is played out. Sarcopenia contributes to weight gain, bone fractures, and diminished cardiovascular fitness. It is also a subtle but significant player in insulin resistance, diabetes, and immune dysfunction. Perhaps most tragically, it is responsible for the loss of independence in many older people.
Fight Back by Getting Physical
The most powerful therapy for counteracting the effects of aging on the muscles is exercise. Regular aerobic activity does wonders to preserve muscle strength. But to actually reverse sarcopenia and build muscle, strength training must complement aerobic exercise
It's never too late to start. Dozens of studies have shown that when older people perform weight-lifting exercises, their strength and stability dramatically improve. In a Tufts University study, 100 frail nursing home residents, ages 72 to 98, engaged in two exercises: extending their legs against resistance in a sitting position and pushing weights with their legs while lying down. After 10 weeks their strength increased an average of 113 percent.
Strength training can make an active 60-year-old as strong as a sedentary 30-year-old. Start tomorrow and you can expect to increase your strength by as much as 100 percent over the next few months. It will also improve balance, reduce risk of falling, and decrease the likelihood of injury and illness.
In addition to exercise, we can do other things to maintain muscle mass as we age. One is to make sure we have adequate protein intake. According to sarcopenia expert William J. Evans in a 2001 article in the Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology, current protein recommendations are often inadequate to support the metabolic needs of older people, and this contributes to muscle loss. Make a point of eating four to six ounces of fish, poultry, or other sources of high-quality protein with every meal.
Finally, consider taking creatine. This nutritional supplement, which is especially popular with bodybuilders, increases energy stores in the muscles. In a 2002 study of active older men published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, creatine has been shown to slow and even reverse sarcopenia when coupled with moderate exercise.
Exercise, protein, and creatine: practise these strategies and you'll prevent loss of skeletal muscle as you age.