Updated: Aug 1, 2021
The idea that frailty because of muscle loss in old age is inevitable, is a myth.
Most people’s fears or major health concerns as they get older are usually about having a heart, or getting cancer, developing Alzheimer’s, or other similar illnesses. However, the truth is that for most people, age related disability comes in the form of frailty or a lack of ‘Functional Ability’. It is the slow insidious decline into physical decrepitude that reduces the quality of most people’s lives as they age. Ironically, it is also this slow physical degeneration that often results in the manifestation of the very things they are primarily concerned about, such as heart attacks and cancer, etc.
Osteoporosis is an affliction often associated aging, and for many when you discuss aging and progressive frailty in terms of mobility and movement, this usually ranks high on their worry list. Osteoporosis (Osteo for bone, and porous for holes or pores) is a debilitating denigrative condition but is largely preventable.
Aside from the nutritional and hormonal components of the equation, the main way you get the body to preserve the integrity of bones and prevent Osteoporosis, is by placing regular demands on the skeleton, structurally. This means frequently placing weight, load, or resistance on it through activity and movement.
What’s interesting though is that whilst the general populace is very cognizant of Osteoporosis and the loss of bone tissue, very few have any knowledge that it is actually the loss of muscle tissue that is often the precursor to this condition due to declining levels of activity.
This loss of muscle tissue as we age also has a name, it’s called Sarcopenia; Sarco for flesh or muscle, and penia for loss. But I will bet money on the fact that 99% of people you know have never heard the term before.
The term was first coined in the ‘80’s by Irwin Rosenberg, a doctor, and dean of the School of Nutrition Science at Tufts University. Tufts research scientists had been looking at the dramatic loss of muscle tissue that seemed to occur with aging in the general populace.
Sarcopenia generally starts to occur around age 35, with a steady muscle loss rate of about 1% a year. As your level of muscle tissue decreases, so does your level of strength. Not surprisingly, as strength goes, so does physical functional ability – and your ability to do things such as run, climb stairs, get yourself up easily after you fall, pick things up like shopping bags or kids, even just walking can become challenging in terms of stability.
Sarcopenia is a condition that can occur in people of all fitness levels, including older athletes. The effect is less pronounced in those who have more muscle to start with. This is particularly evident with women. By early 20’s, women on average have approximately one third less muscle than men, so the effect of Sarcopenia hits them quicker. Women live longer than men on average, however according to statistics, many of them who live alone end up in nursing homes sooner due to frailty and an inability to cope with routine physical demands.
Why does Sarcopenia happen? So far, the research points to a number of possible age-related causes. One possible cause is the general decline in estrogen and testosterone levels in women and men respectively as they get older. Other research suggests that a weakening immune system may increase levels of substances that break down muscle tissue. Whilst another possible cause is that there is a gradual loss of certain nerve cells that link the brain to the muscles; in turn, the loss of chemical connections between these two causes an atrophy and loss of muscle cells. This is perhaps the most relevant in terms of forming a connection to the benefits of certain types of exercise which preserve long term functional ability.
Then there is the final reason, disuse, or just plain basic inactivity.
In an ironical insidious twist, the loss of strength from Sarcopenia can create a vicious cycle. When it takes a great deal of physical effort to perform certain tasks, people naturally shy away from them. But it is these very same strenuous activities, done even for limited durations, that help maintain muscle mass. Therefore, abandoning engagement in them only serves to accelerate Sarcopenia - creating even greater levels of strength loss.
But in the problem lies the solution. Whilst you can't completely halt sarcopenia in its tracks, there's much you can do to slow it dramatically and thereby maintain functional longevity as you age. In fact, if you were sedentary in your early decades as an adult, it is actually possible to still acquire more muscle mass in later years, and subsequently more strength than you had in your 20’s, 30’s and 40’s.
The only effective way to achieve this is through strength or resistance training.
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