Muscle strength is one of the keys to healthy aging, yet after we achieve peak mass in our early 40s, it’s pretty much downhill from there especially if we are sedentary.
With the growing population of aging baby boomers, experts are turning their attention to interventions to help stem the loss of muscle mass, quality and strength, also known as sarcopenia. Muscle decline often goes hand in hand with frailty, a decline of physical function that leads to falls, hospitalization and the need for nursing-home care.
Researchers are looking at treatments including inhibiting a protein called myostatin, that curbs muscle growth. Pharmaceutical companies already have drugs in the pipeline that act by blocking myostatin or blocking the sites where it is detected in the body, potentially rebuilding muscle.
For now, the best medicine available to maintain muscle mass and strength is exercise and a healthy diet. Yet about 60 percent of people over 65 are insufficiently active or overtly inactive, and many have poor nutrition. It is estimated that most people will lose approximately 30 percent of muscle mass over their lifetime, and as much as 50 percent by the time they reach their 80s or 90s.
Muscle is also central to metabolism, or the rate at which fat and calories are burned, and can help improve resiliency to the stressors of aging. By simply stepping up activity and including resistance training, eating more lean protein (0.45 to 0.68 grams per pound) spread equally through three meals, and increasing vitamin D levels, one can slow the loss and prevent crossing that threshold that leads to functional limitations and metabolic issues.
According to research, chronic diseases such as diabetes, which inhibits the metabolism of nutrients in the body, are believed to contribute to age-related muscle loss, and older obese individuals with decreased muscle mass or strength are at special risk for adverse outcomes.
There is some inevitability to declining strength and muscles in aging, but whatever we can do to mitigate that by building up the health reserve can pay off in dividends later.