By Bonnie Jenkins, Advanced Natural Wellness
Along with graying hair, fading eyesight and wrinkles comes another universal sign of aging that doesn’t create the same level of angst – but it should. It’s called sarcopenia (sar-ko-PEENya), which is the loss of muscle mass, strength and function that’s entirely too common as we get older.
Sure, everyone experiences some degree of muscle loss with age. But progressive sarcopenia is at the core of why some people become frail. It increases the likelihood of falls and impairs a person’s ability to perform even routine daily tasks, like climbing stairs, opening a jar or doing the laundry.
After peaking in young adulthood, skeletal muscle starts declining at about 45 to 55 years of age. Experts estimate that advanced sarcopenia affects 30 percent of people over the age of 60 and possibly more than 50 percent over the age of 80. But there are ways to minimize muscle loss as you age.
Bones and Beyond
Sarcopenia may not be as familiar a term as osteoporosis, but the fact is they often go hand in hand. These two conditions tend to track each other as you age and for good reason. Muscle helps prevent bone loss. If you lose muscle, you’re going to lose bone as well.
Here’s another problem – as muscle is lost, balance becomes impaired, which increases the risk of falling. And falls lead to fractures – especially if your bones are already weakened.
Experts routinely recommend weight-bearing exercise to prevent bone loss. That’s because, as muscles get stronger, they impose physical force on bones – which, in turn, stimulates the body to make more bone to support the muscle.
Strong, healthy muscles don’t just keep your bones strong and your physic buff. They play a much larger role in how your body functions. Most people don’t realize that muscle helps to maintain normal blood sugar levels. In fact, some researchers think that the downward spiral toward diabetes begins when insulin is no longer effective at helping muscle clear glucose from the blood.
It stands to reason then, that as muscle mass diminishes, it impairs the ability to keep blood sugar stable. That increases the likelihood of developing insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
Of course, the opposite is also true. As you build muscle, improvements in insulin resistance follow. Researchers at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University studied 62 middle-aged and older adults with type 2 diabetes during 16 weeks of strength training and found that when muscle increased, insulin resistance improved significantly.
Weight lifters have long maintained that eating more protein results in bigger, stronger muscles. Now, researchers may be inclined to agree. They are finding that a low protein intake contributes to muscle loss and that extra protein may benefit older people in their fight against sarcopenia.
The current Daily Value for protein is 50 grams. However, some experts think that older men and women may need twice that much for greater muscle mass and strength. The problem is, only about 30 percent of older adults even meet current recommendations for protein.
Not only is the amount of protein important in preventing sarcopenia, the type of protein matters too. Meat and other animal sources of protein provide a nutrient-rich package of all the essential amino acids needed to manufacture and maintain muscle. In other words, a little goes a long way toward maintaining muscle. And a new study in the Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging found that intake of animal protein was the only independent predictor of muscle mass in a group of women aged 57 to 75.
High-quality protein from lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs and low-fat dairy are your best options for making sure you get enough. In fact, a study from the Netherlands found that, at least in older women, a diet high in animal protein resulted in more protein that is manufactured by the body (and ultimately incorporated into muscle) compared to a diet high in vegetable protein like tofu or beans.
That doesn’t mean you need to gorge yourself on a steak that covers your plate or douse your veggies in cheese or cream sauce. Yummy as that may sound, it isn’t good for your weight, your heart or your muscles! You can top the recommended 50 grams of protein daily with two 3-ounce servings of meat, fish or poultry plus a cup of yogurt. And, although it’s typically more expensive, you can really boost the quality of your protein by buying organic meat and dairy. Plus it just tastes better!
One Last thing …
The old saying, “use it or lose it,” is particularly true when it comes to the muscle loss that occurs with age. While getting enough high-quality protein each day is essential to maintaining muscle mass, so is being active. The two work in tandem to increase and maintain both muscle mass and strength.
Research shows that just 10 days of being bedridden with no physical activity can cause older people to lose nine percent of the muscle mass in their legs. When inactivity is combined with illness, trauma or surgery, the loss of muscle is accelerated, making recovery all the more difficult.
But studies from the Nutrition, Exercise Physiology and Sarcopenia Laboratory at Tufts University have found that regular strength-training exercises are a safe and effective way to prevent frailty as we age. It can even reverse sarcopenia. In fact, studies have found that people benefit from strength training in their 70s, 80s and even in their 90s.
So here’s the bottom line: Some aspects of aging are beyond our control, but getting plenty of high-quality protein and staying physically active are two critical factors for health and independence as you get older. Best of all, research shows it’s never too soon – or too late – to start.
This Just In …
Here’s more good news for folks taking vitamin D supplements: Researchers from the European Institute of Oncology in Milan, Italy, analyzed 18 well-controlled trials of people taking supplemental vitamin D and concluded that a daily D supplement significantly reduced the risk of dying during the six years that the study participants were followed.
The volunteers ranged in age from 33 to 106, but most were seniors. The trials provided between 400 and 830 IU of vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) each day. The upshot? People who took vitamin D daily were seven percent less likely to die during the study period than those who didn’t take D.
The researchers don’t know exactly how vitamin D might delay death, but lots of theories abound. Some speculate it could prevent falls by strengthening bones. Others think vitamin D reduces the likelihood of illness by boosting the immune system. Some point to this nutrients ability to cut cancer risk by inhibiting cell growth and still others note that vitamin D reduces the severity of type 2 diabetes. Whatever the reason, all of us should supplement with 1,000 IU of vitamin D every day.
Autier P, Gandini S. “Vitamin D Supplementation and Total Mortality: A Meta-analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials.” Archives in Internal Medicine. 2007;167:1730-1737.
Brooks N, Layne JE, Gordon PL, et al. “Strength training improves muscle quality and insulin sensitivity in Hispanic older adults with type 2 diabetes.” International Journal of Medical Sciences. 2006;4:19-27.
Evans WJ. “Protein nutrition, exercise and aging.” Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 2004;23(6 Suppl):601S-609S.
Lord C, Chaput JP, Aubertin-Leheudre M, et al. “Dietary Animal Protein Intake: Association with Muscle Mass Index in older women.” The Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging. 2007;11:383-387