Sarcopenia – Age Related Muscle Loss
Sarcopaenia is a condition that affects each and every one of us, often with life changing consequences, yet ask most people and that have probably never even heard of the word!
‘Sarcopenia’ is actually the medical term for age related loss of muscle mass. As we age we naturally lose muscle tissue at a steady and predictable rate. We actually lose an average of 3kg of muscle per decade, but more surprisingly this decline begins in out thirties. Sadly it is one of those conditions that people often ignore as they have no symptoms, but the consequences of not acting early can be devastating.
Interestingly the reason we lack symptoms is because during our youth we have far more muscle than we need for everyday tasks. We only require 30% of our strength to carry out all the important tasks of everyday living such as getting up from a chair or climbing a flight of stairs, so as our maximum strength decreases by 5% every so many years we remain oblivious as we can still carry out all our activities of daily living with ease.
The trouble comes when our maximum strength starts to decline to around 50% of what it was in our youth, and suddenly everything that used to feel easy suddenly becomes hard. First you find it hard to carry out more strenuous tasks such as getting out of a car, but eventually simple tasks such as getting changed or combing hair become challenging. Unfortunately the eventual consequence is loss of independence, something people fear more than anything!
Although sarcopenia begins in our thirties, the process rapidly accelerates with time and the most marked decline is from our sixties onwards. Although we cannot halt sarcopenia altogether, there is still a lot we can do to reduce the rate of muscle loss and maintain strength and independence through old age.
The most important way to negate the effects of sarcopenia is through resistance exercise. Exercises such as walking are great for cardiovascular fitness but they do very little to help with sarcopenia. Resistance exercise means exercising against resistance, such as with weights or resistance machines that you find in your local gym. Everybody is capable of doing some form of resistance exercise and this is something you should not be intimidated by.
Another important factors in slowing sarcopenia is diet. As we age our appetite declines, so as we eat less we naturally reduce the amount of protein that we consume. To slow sarcopenia we need to keep our protein intake high, and as we are eating less this means that a higher proportion of the food we eat needs to be protein. It is also important to spread this protein out through the day over three or meals as this produces more muscle protein synthesis when compared to one or two high protein meals.
It is also important to get your vitamin D levels checked as you age since deficiency is common due to reduced sun exposure. As well as weakening our bones, low vitamin D results in weaker muscles and accelerated sarcopenia. A low vitamin D level can be easily rectified with supplementation. When was the last time you had your vitamin D level checked?
Being aware that sarcopaenia affects us all is the first step in combating its effects. The earlier you commence resistance exercise, the greater the benefits, but it is never too late to start. If you are new to resistance exercise or intimidated by the gym environment, talk to your local gym about some personal training to help you learn.
marjorie campbell says
very good information. i enjoyed reading your artle. please keep me informed.
Mark Alexander-Warne says
Hello Dr. Ahmed,
This is an excellent article. I am starting a health and fitness coaching business specializing in senior fitness. I would like permission to use/purchase the illustration of muscle loss due to age. I haven’t found any image that illustrates this as well as yours. Thank you.