How Aging Affects Muscle Loss
© Brittany Colette
We all age. It is one of the simplest life truths which applies to all living forms on this planet. So, whether we like it or not is irrelevant; we need to accept it. Everything changes as we age. Some of these changes are positive. We are becoming wiser (okay, maybe not all of us), we are more independent, maybe have more money, etc. But there are other changes, too. Our bodies change. Some of these changes are more obvious such as fine lines and wrinkles. Others are more, let’s say subtle, such as muscle loss.
Let’s be clear about something: We do not all age the same way. Some people are active and vibrant till the very end. In some cases, their physiologic age is younger than what their birth certificate says. Others suffer from issues such as osteoporosis and osteoarthritis already at a young age. However, we all experience muscle mass loss during aging.
What is Sarcopenia?
This muscle loss from aging is called sarcopenia or sarcopenia with aging. We might have heard about it for the first time when we were in our early forties. Maybe we grew up in families where physical activity was truly valued. So, since early on we practiced different sports. However, after we started university, life was kind of happening, and we stopped. We fell in love, graduated, got jobs, and got married. Then the kids arrived, and there was no time to work out. At least not regularly.
When we wanted to get more active again, we noticed that everything got much harder. You think it is because we were out of shape!? There is some truth in that, but this is only temporally. Muscle loss isn’t something that happens only to ‘old people’. Muscle loss begins when we are still relatively young, and as we get old, it grows into a condition called sarcopenia. However, it is not something that cannot be prevented or slowed down with exercise and proper diet and nutrition.
Aging-Related Muscle Loss
Generally, from the moment we are born till we reach about 30, our muscles grow and develop. But at some point in our 30s, we start to notice some muscle endurance loss during aging. It happens even if we are physically active, but more when we are not. In this case, we lose between 3 and 5 percent of muscle mass and strength each decade after 30.
Cause is the link between muscle aging and mitochondria. As we age there are changes in mitochondrial ultrastructure that we cannot neglect. The mitochondria of an aged muscle are bigger than those of a young muscle and round in shape. Besides, mitochondrial dysfunction is in direct link with muscle loss. The primary function of mitochondria is to provide energy to the cells. Thus, these changes lead to muscle cell aging. The impairment of mitochondria, including that maximal ATP production rate and mitochondrial synthesis, is the result of a break-in oxygen consumption and ATP synthesis.
Hence, muscle fibers reduce in numbers and shrink in size. Also, muscle tissue is replaced more slowly. In case of muscle tissue loss, tough fibrous tissue appears. Apart from all this, changes in the nervous system cause muscles to lose tone and the ability to contract. Good news is, when you are more physically active, you are working to decrease age-related deficits in mitochondrial function and thus prevent or slow down muscle changes in aging.
Factors That Speed Up Muscle Loss
Although we said that sarcopenia happens to everyone, some people are more prone and will experience muscle weakness earlier in life. These are people who are more accustomed to a sedentary life. It is logical when you think about it, isn’t it? Muscles need to be engaged daily to preserve good health, strength, and function. If you go to work by car, sit in the office and then sit and watch movies when you come back home, chances are you will experience muscle atrophy. It will result in muscle elasticity decrease during aging and general muscle loss.
A diet that doesn’t include enough protein and calories leads to weight loss and a decrease in muscle mass. However, this diet is common as we age because of changes in taste and problems with teeth and gums. Also, some medical conditions may require that we consume less protein. To prevent changes in muscle tone because of aging and sarcopenia, we need to eat at least 25 to 30 grams of protein at each meal.
When you get injured or you have some inflammatory process, the body destroys damaged cells and rebuilds new ones. In cases of severe injury or illness, this process can be disrupted, which can result in muscle loss. For example, a study showed that people who had long-term inflammation because of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) experienced a decrease in muscle mass.
Stress dramatically increases the risk of sarcopenia. For example, people with chronic liver disease or cardiovascular disease experience higher degrees of muscle loss. The situation is similar to people who have chronic kidney disease or some types of cancer.
How to Combat Sarcopenia?
Many factors contribute to sarcopenia. Most of them are mainly related to aging. However, some medical conditions can lead to muscle loss, even if we are middle-aged or even younger. But this doesn’t mean that it is not possible to deal with it. Regular exercise is the best way to prevent and even maybe reverse the damage. Studies show that it is best to engage in a combination of resistance training, balance training, and aerobic exercise at least twice a week for maximal benefit.
Very few things in life are as certain as aging and death. Even though it is inevitable, old age can also be enjoyable if we are in a good condition. Knowing about muscle loss that comes as a result of aging is essential, as we are able to better understand what accelerates it and how to prevent it. Have you ever thought about this? Have you ever heard about sarcopenia before?