Nov 2015 14

Age related muscle loss

By: Dave Wheeler

Until the age of  about 30 you put on muscle mass, with your muscles getting stronger and bigger.

But, as I've mentioned before from about 40 years old onwards we actually lose muscle mass. It's not that it's harder to put on, we lose it!

Research published by Southampton University earlier this month confirmed, not surprisingly, that the greater the muscle loss, the more likely the risk of falls and fractures.

I say "not surprisingly" because it's our muscles that help us provide balance and stability to joints to stop us falling, and which provide some shock absorbency - so if muscles become wasted, then we're not going to be as stable or as able to withstand knocks and falls.


Sarcopenia: age-related muscle loss

The term sarcopenia is used in 2 senses in the medical world:

  • firstly it's descriptive of a natural process of muscle loss due to age - it comes to us all
  • secondly (and confusingly) as a diagnosis of an accelerated version of the natural process (confusingly!)

In extreme cases, people can lose up to 1% muscle mass per year, but it's important to recognise that that's an extreme. That sort of loss of muscle loss is going to happen in people who lead an inactive life. 

Again, that's not much of a surprise - we all know someone that's spent an extended length of time in a hospital bed and seen muscle wastage. Age-related muscle degeneration will obviously, then, be more pronounced in people who aren't active.

There's a bit of a catch-22 situation here: with muscle loss comes a loss of stamina and also muscle weakness. These mean that exercise becomes  harder. This reduced activity again reduces muscle tone. It's a vicious cycle.

Age-related muscle mass is seen in everyone, it's just much more pronounced in couch-potatoes!


The causes of sarcopenia - why do we lose muscle with age?

It probably won't surprise you to learn that we don't really know why muscles start to atrophy with age. Some of the factors seem to be:

  1. A decrease in the production of growth hormones
  2. A decrease in the body's ability to produce proteins
  3. A reduction in the number or sensitivity of nerve cells which stimulate muscle movement

all of these are necessary for muscle growth.


The cure for age-related muscle mass

Whilst sarcopenia is a natural phenomenon that comes to us all, the rate of muscle loss can be slowed by exercise. Of course, given the vicious circle mentioned above, it can be hard to get started and to get right.

Because of the nature of the muscle loss, the best form of exercise is resistance exercise, typically using resistance bands. To be honest, this is something best supervised by someone who knows what they're doing - best to seek out a PT who has some experience behind them and is used to helping older people.

Whilst loss of muscle mass is normal with age, it can be slowed with exercise, and a program that starts off gently, takes account of your age, body and exercise history will really help keep you stable and less prone to injury.