While age brings valuable wisdom, it unfortunately also brings the gradual wasting of skeletal muscle mass, known as sarcopenia. More unfortunately still, sarcopenia brings with it an increased risk of injury, disability, and the loss of independence. Starting as early as our 30’s, research has shown that muscle mass and strength begins to decline in a linear fashion, with up to 50% of mass being lost by the time we reach our 70’s . As muscle mass accounts for up to 60% of body mass, protecting the health and strength of our muscles as we age can have significant effects on our longevity and quality of life.
There are few pharmaceutical options for treating sarcopenia, so exercise and nutrition are the most common avenues for treatment .
How can we protect our muscles from sarcopenia?
Although age (including hormonal changes, a decrease in motor neurons, an increase in inflammation, and other molecular age-related changes) is the main driver of sarcopenia, obesity and the infiltration of fat into skeletal muscle can seriously worsen the condition . So, staying fit with regular exercise and a healthy diet can certainly make a big difference.
Specifically, we have to change our exercise and nutritional regimen to make up for the fact that our muscles are slower to build and faster to degrade than they were in our younger years. This means focusing on strength training and getting adequate amino acid intake for muscle building. Strength training may sound intimidating, but it doesn’t have to mean bodybuilding. Body weight exercises like yoga and pilates are a great way to strength train, or doing many repetitions of weight lifting exercises with very light weights. Even swimming provides some resistance to build muscle strength. Not only will strength training help to build new muscle, it will also increase the speed of your metabolism to fend off obesity, make cardiovascular exercise easier with more power behind your movements, and help to prevent accidents and falls by supporting stability.
Complete Proteins/Essential Amino Acids
In terms of dietary changes, many older adults do not eat adequate amounts of complete protein to keep up with metabolic needs. As aging muscles are less efficient at turning dietary protein into new muscle, the diet must contain a higher percentage of amino acids than what is suitable in younger years . If this is difficult to do, a supplement containing all of the essential amino acids can be a great option. As muscle protein is made up of mostly branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) (leucine, isoleucine, and valine), these amino acids should be especially plentiful in the supplement . Leucine, in particular, appears to be the greatest stimulator of new muscle synthesis . All essential amino acids are needed, however, to build new muscle, so a BCAA supplement must be accompanied by the remaining six essential aminos or a complete protein source to be effective against muscle wasting.
- Walston, Jeremy D. “Sarcopenia in older adults.” Current opinion in rheumatology 24.6 (2012): 623.
- Fujita, Satoshi, and Elena Volpi. “Amino acids and muscle loss with aging.” The Journal of nutrition 136.1 (2006): 277S-280S.