6 Reasons to Prevent Sarcopenia
In this week’s article I discuss a battle that we all face everyday: the battle against muscular atrophy! You may have a good idea of why it is so important to maintain muscle mass and strength throughout your life. But today I offer some reasons that you may not have considered for maintaining your strength . Read on to find out more…
Did you know that in the year 2000 it was estimated that sarcopenia alone accounted for over $18.5 billion in direct healthcare costs (Janssen et al.)? My guess is that you probably didn’t. In fact, I’m sure at this point you’re just wondering what the heck sarcopenia is.
Well, sarcopenia refers to the collective loss of muscle mass, muscle strength, and overall function that is associated with aging. The word, sarcopenia, is made up of two Greek words: sarx, meaning flesh and penia, meaning lack or deficiency.
This age-related loss of muscle mass, strength, and function is certainly a common occurrence in this day and age, but does that mean it has to be the rule?
Most people just accept the loss of strength and muscle mass as a part of the aging process, saying things like, “I’m past my prime” or “I’m over the hill.” As a culture, this mindset is deemed acceptable or even expected, but perhaps it shouldn’t be.
I hear it all the time from older clients who come into the gym. It sounds something like, “Now you have to remember that I’m getting older, and I can’t do as much as I used to.” Or, “Someone my age has to be careful not to do too much and hurt themselves.”
Of course, I am not trying to push people past their limits or say that there isn’t some validity to these claims. But what I will say is this. Don’t use age as an excuse to not get stronger.
Moreover, this mindset is often the reason why such a dramatic loss of strength, muscle mass, and even bone density is seen in the older population. Many people don’t realize that their body needs stress just as much as it needs food. Instead of needing to be protected and sheltered from harm, the human body needs to be challenged. This is how it gets stronger and more resilient.
The idea that you can get too old to challenge your body without hurting it, simply isn’t true. You just need to know how to properly challenge your body without putting it at risk of injury.
I’ve seen enough “older” people increase their strength in the gym to know that their bodies respond just fine to a logically progressed strength training program that starts at a level they are ready for.
Furthermore it’s not just that older people CAN get stronger; they SHOULD get stronger! There is no rule that says your body must get weaker and weaker as you age. Sure, there are natural aspects of aging that make it more challenging to get stronger, but in my experience people only become weak when they stop trying to get strong.
While allowing yourself to lose strength may be the easy thing to do, it’s not worth it in the long run. The loss of muscle mass and strength that we call sarcopenia has very detrimental effects on both the healthcare system as a whole and the individuals who are dealing with it.
When it comes to the healthcare system, the same study I referenced above that took a look at the overall healthcare costs of sarcopenia in 2000, also estimated that if there was just a 10% reduction in the prevalence of sarcopenia, it could translate into saving $1.1 billion (Janssen et al.).
This is a significant finding because unlike many other chronic diseases or conditions, sarcopenia is relatively easy to treat. By simply getting 10% of the population with sarcopenia stronger, we can make a large impact.
But even if the U.S. healthcare dollar doesn’t mean that much to you, sarcopenia should still catch your attention, and here are 6 reasons why:
We tend to lose muscle mass as we age. It has been calculated that between the ages of 20 and 80 muscle mass can be reduced by almost 30% from peak values.
We lose even more muscle strength and function as we age. Of even greater importance than the loss of muscle mass is the loss of muscle strength and function, which are lost at an even quicker rate:
Losses in strength and function can occur at a rate of 2-5% per year versus losses in muscle mass occurring at a rate of 0.5-1% per year.
Sarcopenia can lead to falls and injuries. This loss in muscle strength and function increases the risk for falls and fall related injuries leading to hospitalization.
Sarcopenia can lead to other problems and comorbidities. Comorbidities (i.e. other chronic diseases occurring alongside sarcopenia) such as obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic diseases can result from sarcopenia.
Decreased quality of life. Sarcopenia also decreases one’s quality of life and the ability to function independently as aging and loss of strength occurs.
We need muscle for everything! Humans rely on muscle not just to move, but also to breathe, dispose of glucose, and maintain a healthy metabolism. Without adequate muscle mass, the metabolism slows and glucose levels rise, leading to the development of metabolic syndrome and diabetes.
Looking at that list, and the rates at which muscle mass and strength are lost, you might think that I was wrong. I said that there is no reason people need to get weaker, but clearly the numbers dictate that people tend to lose muscle as they age.
However, there is a big difference in what happens during aging to people who choose a sedentary lifestyle and people who remain active. There is also a difference between people who are simply active and people who actively train their muscles.
This is evidenced by a research study done in 2011 (Wrobleski et al.). In the study, the researchers showed, via MRI scans of the thigh, the difference in muscle mass between a 40-year-old triathlete (1st picture), a 74-year-old sedentary man (2nd picture), and a 70-year-old triathlete (3rd picture).
Here is what they found:
Wrobleski et al.
It doesn’t take an expert to interpret the difference in the pictures above. If you can’t tell, the white stuff encircling the darker stuff in the second picture is adipose tissue. In other words, that’s how much fat the 74-year-old man had compared to muscle!
While not far off in age from one another, the two different paths these men chose is evident in their body composition. The 70-year-old triathlete has a least as much muscle mass as the 40-year-old triathlete, which means that he didn’t fall prey to the trend of losing muscle with age!
This study represents a contradiction to the common belief that we are destined to lose muscle mass as we age. If that were true, we’d also be destined to succumb to sarcopenia and all of the comorbidities associated with it.
We would be destined to become diabetic, get high blood pressure and heart disease, become weaker and less independent, and be at risk of falling and breaking bones.
Fortunately for us, however, we are not destined to suffer this cruel fate. All we must do is stay active, and continue to train our bodies.
And the best part is, you don’t have to be a triathlete to do it. Of course, the more active you are, the better off you will be. If you like sports, and your joints allow you to continue competing in them, then that’s a great way to stay active and train your body.
However, if you can dedicate just 150 minutes per week to some form of cardiovascular exercise, with two or three days of strength training on top of that, you will be in good shape. It doesn’t take giving up everything else in life to stay healthy, you just have to dedicate yourself to being active consistently.
The results of continuing to challenge your body, and pushing it to get stronger even as you age are well worth the effort that is necessary. You can prevent the loss of your muscle mass and strength as you age. You can prevent sarcopenia.
To finish up, I encourage you to take a look at the video below on the wide-spread benefits of just a minimal amount of exercise and think about how you can fit more movement and exercise into your routine.
As I said, the more the better, as long as you’re smart about it. But if you don’t currently exercise, then doing just a half hour of moving per day can make a tremendous difference.
Click the link below and enjoy!
Janssen, I., DS Shepard, PT Katzmarzyk, and R. Roubenoff. “Result Filters.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Jan. 2004. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.
Wroblewski, AP, F. Amati, MA Smiley, B. Goodpaster, and V. Wright. “Result Filters.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Sept. 2011. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.