Here’s a sobering fact: you can lose up to 40% of your muscle mass between 20 and 80 years old. It may sound weird, but it’s a natural part of aging. Known as sarcopenia, this is the gradual loss of muscle mass that occurs with age. Although we can start losing muscle in our 20s, this loss really accelerates once we hit our 60s. At the same time that sarcopenia leads to a loss of muscle mass, we simultaneously gain fat mass and also see a sharp drop in strength. All of this can have a big impact on how an older person moves.
Muscle mass plays a huge role in our health. So much so that sarcopenia and sarcopenic obesity (the combination of low muscle mass and excess fat) and dynapenia (the loss of muscle strength) are associated with a surprisingly wide range range of health conditionsfrom heart disease and diabetes to frailty and dementia.
In fact, in people who already have heart disease, those who have the highest levels of muscle mass seem to have the best chance of living longer. In contrast, less muscular people seem to be at greater risk of dying prematurely from all causes. This tells us that muscles may play a protective role in heart health. Why this happens we don’t know yet – but it may have something to do with chemical messengers (myokines) produced by healthy muscleswhich can help reduce inflammation throughout the body.
Another major benefit of having healthy muscles is that they help protect us from diabetes. When we eat and digest carbohydrates – like potatoes, bread or rice – sugar enters our bloodstream, much of which is sent to our muscles. Our muscles use this sugar for energy or store it as glycogen to maintain stable blood sugar levels. This process is an important part of blood sugar control and helps explain why people with less muscle are more likely to develop diabetes.
In older people, low levels of muscle are also linked to greater fragility, weakness and inability to carry out normal daily activities. This means people may have trouble with regular tasks such as getting out of bed, getting up from a chair, climbing stairs, or carrying groceries. All of this can make independent living much more difficult. Difficulty moving can also mean that people end up moving even less, which speeds up muscle loss.
People with sarcopenia who lead sedentary lives are also at greater risk of osteoporosis. This is because active muscles send signals to the bones that help them stay strong. Decreased strength due to sarcopenia means people can be more prone to falls and bone fractures. Again, this fear of falling can make some people more sedentary, which can reduce quality of life and put them at greater risk of depression.
Although sarcopenia is a natural part of aging, muscle loss is greatly accelerated by inactivity. As we age, we tend to move less. But exercise is one of the key signals our bodies need to keep our muscles strong and good for health. Without this signal, our muscles start to get smaller and weaker over time. eat protein also acts as a signal to build and maintain muscle. However, as we age, we tend to have smaller appetites and eat less proteinincreasing the risk of muscle loss.
Lower levels of the hormones testosterone and estrogen, higher levels of body fat, insulin resistance (where the body does not handle glucose as it should, which can lead to diabetes) and higher levels High levels of inflammation are other reasons older people lose more muscle. easily than younger people. In fact, all of these factors combined lead to something called “anabolic resistance”. This means that the body does not respond as well to signals that normally cause muscles to grow.
If that’s not enough, current COVID-19 restrictions may be make muscle loss even more likely. Smartphone data showed that people have been more sedentary than usual during confinement. We also know that people sleep quality has decreased and people probably feel more stress and anxiety. These factors can also accelerate muscle loss by affecting the hormones that increase muscle breakdown and encourage weight gain affecting appetite hormonescausing people to eat more processed foods that contain more calories.
This is called a “catabolic crisis– a brief period of time where conditions come together to make muscle loss much more likely. Another example of a catabolic crisis would be if someone was hospitalized or forced to spend days or even weeks in bed. COVID-19 could very well create a catabolic crisis for many old people after confinement.
Muscle loss can be prevented – or at least slowed – with a few lifestyle changes, namely exercise and diet. Resistance exercises, such as lifting weights or using elastic resistance bands, help keep muscles strong and healthy and regular walking can also help.
High protein diets, containing foods such as lean meats, fish, eggs, and low-fat dairy products may also help build and maintain more muscle than exercise alone. Getting at least 25-40 grams of protein at each meal is especially important. In addition to this, widely available supplements including Vitamin D, fish oil and creatine (a naturally occurring substance in muscles that helps them produce energy) may help people retain more muscle and improve their quality of life as they age. During this pandemic, when muscle loss is more likely, prioritizing regular exercise and a healthy diet can make a big difference to long-term health.