One of the most significant changes that come with aging is the loss of muscle mass, or sarcopenia in scientific terms. While much attention has been paid to diminishing bone density (a.k.a. osteoporosis), the importance of keeping the body’s muscle structure intact for as long as possible has not been as widely addressed. Yet, both issues are intertwined and equally central to healthy aging for multiple reasons.
Rightly, sarcopenia is becoming increasingly recognized as a serious health threat to aging populations everywhere. The gradual loss of physical strength can lead to greater risks of injuries, debilitation and overall frailty. Because there is no single cause for this deterioration, countermeasures are to be multifold.
Muscle diminution begins relatively early in life, about in one’s mid- to late thirties. Physically inactive people can expect losing up to five percent of their muscles per decade thereafter. The process then accelerates further after the age of 60.
Lack of exercise is not the only reason, albeit a significant one. Other factors are dietary imbalances and hormonal changes. Some of these are unavoidable, but nutrition and lifestyle improvements can make a considerable difference.
While regular physical activity is beneficial at any age, it becomes ever more vital as we grow older. Especially weight lifting and other forms of strength training can keep muscles firm and flexible. In fact, they can grow and become stronger with stimulation almost throughout life. However, as clinical studies have shown, unlike at a young age, adding new muscle fibers is not as easy and eventually becomes nearly impossible in later years. But existing muscles, including significantly atrophied ones, can be increased in size with the right exercise regimen.
Physical strength and mobility are not the only benefits of muscle maintenance for good health. Muscle mass also plays a role in metabolic and hormonal functions, as well as in the prevention of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. It also helps protect against cognitive decline and enhances healthy aging in general, according to study reports.
Much of the research done on the subject has pointed out the importance of protein intake for maintenance of muscles. Particularly older adults and seniors are at a heightened risk of low protein supply. Moreover, metabolic changes make it harder to produce muscle protein from food. For this reason, experts recommend greater consumption of healthy proteins from lean meat and plant-based sources. Vitamin D (or lack thereof) also seems to affect how well muscles are preserved. Depletion can be avoided by sun exposure and, if needed, by supplementation.
The best way to prevent muscle loss is a healthy lifestyle that starts early with conducive diet and exercise habits. The sooner these are put in place the better the body fares when natural decline sets in. In any case, being proactive and not letting things slide out of control is key.
TIMI GUSTAFSON, a registered dietitian, health counselor, newspaper columnist, and blogger. She’s the author of “The Healthy Diner — How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun.” Her website is www.timigustafson.com.