Prevent age-related muscle wasting

Older woman lifting weights
January 14, 2015 (Updated: February 5, 2015)
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

They say it’s hell getting old. And while I’m not sure who “they” are, even though there are a lot of wonderful aspects of life in our later years, I can tell you that getting older is not without its fair share of challenges as well.

One of them is a phenomenon called sarcopenia. Like osteoporosis is a wasting away of bone mass, sarcopenia is a gradual and degenerative wasting away of muscle mass, strength, and function. And, over time, not only can it prevent elderly people from performing some their most basic daily tasks, it also increases risk of suffering falls, breaks, fractures, and other serious accidents.

Sometimes called frailty syndrome, sarcopenia is not actually a disease or even a symptom. In fact, there is no generally accepted definition in the medical literature, partially because it occurs in even the healthiest of adults.

Even Olympic-level athletes experience sarcopenia—it’s part of the reason you rarely see athletes in their 50s and 60s competing, professionally, against 20 and 30-somethings.

You see, whether you realize it or not, you started losing skeletal muscle mass at a rate of about 0.5–1% per year starting around the ages of 25–30. And sedentary adults can lose between 3-5% per decade, with most adults losing about 50% of their muscle strength by approximately 80 years old.

The exact causes of sarcopenia are a matter of some debate. But scientists believe there are several factors at work, including an age-related decrease in growth hormone and testosterone, a decrease in the body’s ability to synthesize protein (a crucial ingredient for building muscle) and not enough calories and protein in the diet to sustain energy, muscle mass, and the body’s muscle building processes.

And while there’s no way to stop sarcopenia, there are plenty of ways to dramatically slow the processes—ensuring strength, independence, and a far better quality of life.

Surprisingly enough, there isn’t a single drug on the market specifically designed to combat sarcopenia.

And that’s probably a good thing because, not only are there safe, powerful, natural ways to maintain muscle strength, but drugs tend to be horrifically expensive and come with side-effects that are often worse than the situation you’re trying to correct.

Since testosterone plays an important role in muscle building and tends to decline dramatically with age, hormone replacement therapy and testosterone treatments have shown some promise.

But, even supplemental testosterone comes with a risk of side effects, including increased risk of cardiac events and increased risk of prostate cancer in men and virilization in women (the appearance of male traits like a deeper voice, frontal hair thinning, and excessive body hair).

The very best thing you can do is get up and move around.

Researchers agree that a sedentary lifestyle and lack of exercise are the biggest contributing factors to sarcopenia.

And while exercise won’t halt sarcopenia outright, research shows that progressively increasing strength and resistance training exercises will increase protein synthesis in older adults in as little as two weeks. Kicking your body’s muscle-building functions back into action and slowing its progress dramatically.

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Best of all…exercise is free and you can do it almost anywhere.

Just one word of caution. If you’re new to strength and resistance training, or it’s been a long time since you hit the gym, it’s probably best to work with a trainer or a physical therapist so you don’t hurt yourself or overdo it.

Also, be mindful of your energy. Beginning a new exercise routine is likely to make you feel tired at first…and that’s ok…but give it a week or two. I think you’ll find that once you’re in a regular routine, you’ll begin to notice not only more strength and stamina, but more energy overall.

There are a number of supplements that I recommend that will also help kick your energy and muscle strengthening processes into high gear.

Creatine

A number of studies show that when creatine is given to older adults participating in resistance exercise training, it helps increase strength and lean body mass better than exercise alone.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is well known and researched for bone health, but recent studies show that it’s important for maintaining muscle mass as well. In other words, vitamin D plays two important roles as we age: helping to build strong bones and improve muscle strength and mass.

Whey protein supplements

Many older adults have a tough time getting enough protein from their diet. Some people just don’t have the appetite to include beneficial portions of lean meats, or other healthy sources of protein, in their meals on a daily basis.

This can be especially problematic for vegetarians. Because, even though there are non-animal sources of protein, with age comes a decline in the ability to digest and utilize protein effectively. So easy-to-digest protein supplements, like whey, are really helpful.

Whey protein also has some very important amino acids used to not only synthesize protein but build muscle.

Omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA

Omega-3s have been shown to help preserve muscle mass and, EPA and DHA specifically, are powerful natural anti-inflammatories.  There is evidence to show that inflammation also plays a role in accelerating sarcopenia, so reversing inflammation can be crucial.

Carnitine

This important amino acid helps shuttle fats into your cells’ mitochondria to be burned for metabolic energy. That’s probably why carnitine formulations are known to help enhance athletic performance and can help promote healthy muscle mass in older adults who are prone to sarcopenia.

Glutamine

Another important amino acid, glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in the body. And studies have shown that, in combination with resistance training, glutamine can help increase muscle mass.

Getting older doesn’t have to mean become weak or frail. Getting into a simple, regular exercise routine, combined with some targeted nutrition, can kick your energy into high gear, build healthy new muscle, and help you enjoy a healthy, active lifestyle for years and years to come.

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  • Linda Butler

    I am looking for a bone health supplement for osteoporosis. Any reccomendations?

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