"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

As age goes up, muscles go down — and this is not good

By on October 29, 2018 in Columnist with 0 Comments

Jim BrownBy Jim Brown, M.D.

You might not have heard of sarcopenia, but if you are over 50, there is a good chance you have it or will develop this condition to some degree.

Sarcopenia is the progressive loss of skeletal muscle tissue as a natural part of the aging process.

Starting around age 30, we humans start to lose 3 to 5 percent of our muscle mass each decade. The decline of muscle tissue with age is one of the most important causes of functional decline and can eventually lead to the loss of independence and frailty in older adults.

Around age 60 the decline may progress more rapidly.

The loss of muscle mass is twofold, including a reduction in muscle fibers as well as a decrease in the size of our muscle fibers.

As we age the body’s ability to produce the proteins that muscles need to grow decreases, and as a result our muscle cells get smaller. In addition, with age the levels of testosterone and growth hormones leads to decreased muscle growth and mass.

Females also have testosterone, although at a much lower level than males. So their decrease in testosterone with aging might play an even bigger role in their losing muscle mass.

Although aging is the main case of sarcopenia, other factors play a role as well.

People with a sedentary life style with little or no physical activity on a regular basis are at an increased risk.

Poor dietary habits and poor nutrition makes our muscles decline more rapidly.

Older adults tend to eat less in general, and it has been shown adults over age 50 tend to eat less protein than is recommended as a daily allowance. In addition, eating too many acid producing foods such as grains and processed foods and eating too few fruits and vegetables also negatively effect our muscle mass.

Some of you might be old enough to remember Jack LaLanne, the godfather of modern fitness. He did many fitness stunts, but one of the most memorable was when he swam from Alcatraz Island to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco at age 60 while handcuffed and towing a 1,000 pound boat.

I remember seeing him on television and in magazines and marveling at his muscle bound body when he was in  his 80s. He died at age 96.

He was a pioneer of incorporating nutrition into fitness and of informing the general public about how eating a proper diet and exercise could change one’s life.

He was so right, but unfortunately, in the general public, his message seemed to fall on deaf ears.

The symptoms and diagnosis of sarcopenia vary with the amount of muscle mass a person has lost. It becomes more obvious with the actual decrease in muscle size, weakness, loss of endurance, poor balance and trouble climbing stairs.

This may not seem to be a big concern, but sarcopenia leads to weakness, increased risk of falling and breaking bones, and can lead to an older person’s loss of independence, adversely affecting their quality of life.

We Americans like to take pills to solve many of our ills. Unfortunately, there are no medications of FDA approved drugs to treat sarcopenia.

There is some ongoing research looking at hormonal therapy for sarcopenia, but to my knowledge there are no approved medications to date.

We can however do something to prevent or decrease sarcopenia. The old adage of “use it or lose it” certainly applies here. Working your muscles helps maintain their muscle mass. If they aren’t used, they shrink.

It is recommended that adults, especially older ones, need to participate a minimum of twice a week in muscle building or strengthening exercise.

I think two days a week is not enough, however. We need to exercise all our muscle groups including legs, arms, chest, shoulder and abdominal muscles.

Strength training should involve resistance bands, weights and exercise machines.

If you go to many senior retirement communities, you will find activity centers including swimming pools, organized exercise activities, and large exercise rooms with every kind of exercise machine equipment including free weights.

At Sun City Grand, for example, any time of the day from 5:30 a.m. to the evening there are about 40 seniors at all times working out. In general, they appear to be quite fit despite their advanced ages. Watching them makes one want to join in.

It is a good idea when starting out on a regular strengthening program to work with an exercise trainer to develop your own exercise program. Older adults should get their physician’s OK before undertaking this type of exercise activity to make sure there are no health issues to be concerned about.

As far as nutrition is concerned, we need to eat an adequate amount of protein daily. An egg a day is now OK. The USDA recommends choosing skinless chicken and lean cuts of beef. Seafood such as trout, salmon, cod and halibut are excellent protein sources.

For those who avoid meat, tofu, lentils, beans and quinoa are good sources of protein.

Aging is inevitable, but in my opinion, preferable to the alternative.

The good news is sarcopenia can be slowed down or diminished with exercise, weights and proper nutrition.

Don’t be a couch potato. The benefits are enormous.

Jim Brown, M.D., is a retired gastroenterologist who has practiced for 38 years in the Wenatchee area. He is a former CEO of the Wenatchee Valley Medical Center.

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