We’re all trying to age gracefully. Whether it’s through regular use of sunscreen and big floppy hats at the beach, a commitment to Pilates classes, or guzzling those recommended 8 classes of water daily, being forever young seems like it should be attainable. Sadly, sagging skin is just be part of normal aging, but there is more at stake than just aesthetics.
Sarcopenia is the official medical term for gradual loss of muscle mass. The word is Greek and is derived from sarx (flesh) and penia (loss). Along with muscle mass comes loss of muscle function. Decreased mobility, reduced strength, and loss of physical function are all related to sarcopenia.
It’s not just the elderly that experience this loss (1). Sarcopenia can begin as early as your 30’s. From the ages of 30 to 60, adults will gain one pound of fat and lose ½ pound of muscle annually. After the age of 70, muscle loss increases to 15% per decade and up to 50% of those over 80 experience sarcopenia (2).
The causes of sarcopenia are many. Reduced physical activity contributes to the development of sarcopenia as muscles atrophy with low use. Low testosterone and low growth hormone have also been implicated. Loss of appetite, decreased calorie intake, and weight loss are all risk factors for this inevitable muscle loss. In addition, neurological decline and chronic illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis may contribute to sarcopenia.
Thankfully, there are a few things that you can do to prevent sarcopenia. For starters, be sure to eat a balanced diet with a variety of foods daily. Adequate calorie and protein intake help to reduce muscle loss over time. Including a variety of food in your eating pattern, especially sources of protein such as eggs, beans, beef, fish, poultry, dairy products, nuts, seeds, nut butters and soy products may also help to maintain normal protein and muscle status. Some researchers have suggested that individuals over 70 consume 20-25 grams of protein per meal, which is the equivalent of 3 ounces of animal protein (meat, fish, poultry), 3 whole eggs, or 1 cup of dried beans (3). Stay active. It’s easy to blow off exercise and activity over time, but to maintain muscle mass and strength, a “use it or lose it” mentality needs to be adopted. Resistance training like weight training, nautilus machines, or the use of thera-bands is one of the best ways to build and maintain muscle strength over time. Pharmaceutical interventions may be the answer down the road, but more research and clinical trials are needed in this area.
By Lisa C. Andrews, MEd, RD, LD
- Paddon-Jones, D., Short, K., Campbell, W., Volpi E., Wolfe. R. Role of dietary protein in the sarcopenia of aging. Am J Clin Nutr May 2008 vol. 87 no. 5 1562S-1566S.
- Keller, K., Engelhart, M., Strength and muscle loss with aging process. Age and strength loss. Muscles Ligaments Tendons J. 2013 Oct-Dec; 3(4): 346–350.
- Paddone-Jones, D., Rassmussen B., Dietary protein recommendations and the prevention of sarcopenia. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2009 Jan; 12(1): 86–90.
Stephanie Ronco has been editing for Food and Health Communications since 2011. She graduated from Colorado College magna cum laude with distinction in Comparative Literature. She was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2008.