Wondering what causes muscle loss in seniors? Generally, a lifetime of poor eating habits and lack of physical activity can prime an aging body for problems. Luckily, it’s never too late to begin building up muscle mass.
Read on for more information on preventing muscle loss in seniors, including solutions for improved diet and exercise.
What Is Age-Related Muscle Loss?
Age-related muscle loss, a syndrome called sarcopenia, is a collection of symptoms. It can greatly affect quality of life, cause adverse health outcomes, and even lead to death or disability.
Progressive muscle loss can impact many aspects of daily life, including partaking in routine tasks like cooking. It typically appears in populations of age 60 and above, although it can affect younger people with certain health conditions that predispose them to musculoskeletal weakening.
What Causes Muscle Loss in Seniors?
Many factors cause a loss of muscle mass with age, and, unfortunately, muscle mass is harder to build and maintain as you age. Let’s explore the most common causes of muscle loss.
Signals from the brain to muscles can become muddled as you get older, causing a lack of precision in motion or movement. Protein turnover in muscles can also decline and is a vital point where diet and exercise come into play.
Seniors also can experience hormone sensitivity or altered hormone levels. Hormone signals play a significant role in the body’s management of muscles. During the aging process, levels of anabolic (muscle-building) hormones are affected. In particular, androgens and growth hormones can decrease, both of which are linked to waning muscle mass.
Sedentary populations are also more prone to sarcopenia, as a lack of physical activity can cause a decrease in muscle mass and an increase in body weight. Obesity also strains the body’s musculoskeletal system.
Chronic Health Conditions
Chronic conditions—like cancer and multiple sclerosis—can increase the risk of sarcopenia, as well as systemic inflammation. Disabilities can further limit movement, in turn further increasing the risk of muscle loss.
Scientists are also looking into genetic factors and defects at the cellular level (i.e. mitochondrial dysfunction) to see if they play a part in the development of sarcopenia.
Diagnosis & Symptoms
Currently, no universally-used biomarkers exist to diagnose sarcopenia. This means a blood test won’t indicate whether or not you have the condition, although elevated levels of a certain protein in the body—called C-reactive protein (CRP)—may flag inflammation. To complicate matters, differing definitions of physical frailty and sarcopenia exist, making it tricky to precisely define and diagnose.
Fortunately, certain criteria are currently used to diagnose sarcopenia and differentiate it from other diseases or conditions. Both low muscle mass and low muscle function must be present.
Common symptoms of sarcopenia include:
- Compromised muscle quality or quantity
- Decreased grip strength
- Falls or fractures
- Fatigue or lower energy levels
- Impairment of daily activities
- Issues with balance or gait
- Low muscle strength
- Low physical performance
- Musculoskeletal degeneration
Some screening tools for loss of muscle mass are available. If your doctor suspects sarcopenia, he or she may evaluate your ability to accomplish the following tasks:
- Climbing stairs
- Rising from a chair
- Walking (speed or distance may be measured)
Often, practitioners will use a combination of imaging to confirm a sarcopenia diagnosis. For example, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scanning is considered the gold standard.
How to Prevent Muscle Loss In Seniors
Treatment for sarcopenia generally involves diet and exercise. Since the body tends to lose muscle mass with age, thoughtful nutrition and exercise therapies can be used to counteract the effects of aging.
Eat a Healthy Diet
Malnutrition can cause overlapping symptoms with sarcopenia, and both can lead to low muscle mass. Often, weight loss efforts can compromise the number of calories you’re getting. To ensure you’re eating a healthy diet, it’s important to get enough macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fats) as well as micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).
In particular, increased protein intake is advised. Generally, consuming 20-35 grams of protein per meal has been proven to provide sufficient amino acids (the building blocks of protein, used to help build muscle in the body). For older adults, protein should contribute 10-35% of overall calories, and people eating for muscle mass and participating in physical activity should be aiming closer to 35%.
Improve nutritional status and increase muscle mass by eating plenty of the following foods:
- Legumes, including beans and legumes
- Lean meat such as ground meat, eggs, poultry, and tofu
- Low-fat or fat-free dairy like cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, and milk
- Whole grains, including brown rice, oatmeal, and whole grain breads and pasta noodles
Evaluate the Need for Supplements and Medications
Not every older adult who has sarcopenia will need supplements or medication, but some seniors will. In some cases, protein supplements may be used to provide the necessary levels of protein in certain cases. For example, seniors on a vegetarian diet may find it difficult to get enough plant-based protein from the diet alone.
Supplementing with creatine has also been suggested in recent studies. Creatine is an amino acid found naturally in muscle cells. It may also be supplemented, under the direction of health professionals, to combat age-related atrophy of muscles. As with other treatments listed here, creatine supplements are thought to be most effective when combined with a well-balanced diet and weight training exercise.
Vitamin D and calcium also are crucial to musculoskeletal maintenance and may be used to treat sarcopenia. If seniors aren’t getting enough of these nutrients from the diet, they’ll need to be provided in supplement form.
Occasionally, high-dose testosterone (an anabolic or growth-promoting steroid) is prescribed to increase muscle power and function. However, this hormone often has intense side effects, so it is not generally considered a standard of care.
If a condition, such as insulin resistance, is thought to be causing sarcopenia symptoms, diet, lifestyle, and medication modifications may be prescribed to address that condition first. This is done in hopes that alleviating the condition will in turn promote an increase in muscle mass and a decrease in the risk of sarcopenia.
Engage In Regular Exercise
The degree to which you participate in exercise may also affect your risk for decreased muscle mass. Physical activity is crucial in both the prevention and treatment of sarcopenia. To prevent muscle loss, focus on major muscle groups in the following areas of the body:
- Arms and shoulders
Resistance training, also known as strength training, is especially effective in reducing the risk of muscle loss and improving muscle strength. Physical activities and equipment used to build muscle strength include:
- Medicine balls
- Resistance bands
- Weight-bearing exercises (i.e. pushups, pull-ups, yoga)
- Weight-lifting (using a machine or free weights)
Aerobic exercises—like walking, running, or cycling—can also help decrease body fat and promote the maintenance of muscle mass. Combining high-protein diets, resistance training, and aerobic activities together seems to have the most synergic effect on the body and fortify the body against frailty.
Older adults may initially be hesitant to exercise. However, options like chair exercises or pool workouts can achieve desired results without putting unnecessary strain on the body. Exercising at least two times a week can start to make a difference.
In Conclusion: Preventing Muscle Loss in Seniors
Due to a decrease in growth-promoting hormones, seniors may experience a loss of muscle mass as they age. Luckily, lifestyle modifications can play an important role in both preventing and treating sarcopenia. Ensure you get enough protein each day and enough exercise each week to reduce the risk of frailty, fractures, and falls
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