According to a recent New York Times article, disability costs in the U.S. related to muscle loss in older people are billions of dollars: “One study estimated that disability caused by sarcopenia accounted for $18.5 billion in direct medical costs in 2000.”
Sarcopenia is the term used to describe the natural reduction in muscle mass and strength people experience over time. The decline can start around age 30 for some. By the mid 60s, the decline can be severe. Decreases in growth hormone, testosterone, and insulin-like growth factors are thought to be involved in muscle loss. Under-activity also plays a role.
Sedentariness and obesity have been discussed in the mainstream media quite a bit. Even a somewhat active person can experience muscle loss, or sarcopenia, because they simply don’t use specific muscles. For example, walking twice a week is good for the heart, but it does not do much for the muscles of the forearms, wrists, hands or back. When those muscles are not challenged with some resistance, they are likely to shrink over time. Resistance training involves using some kind of weight to activate the muscles. Muscles can also be stimulated by doing exercises using only body weight such as push-ups and pull-ups.
Muscle loss is tied to another health condition called metabolic syndrome. Muscle mass is involved in how fast our metabolism works. When we have less muscle mass, our metabolism slows, which makes us more prone to gaining weight in the midsection. Weight gain makes a person more likely to experience glucose intolerance which contributes to type II diabetes.
When metabolism slows, an older person can also lose their appetite and not eat enough to support a healthy amount of muscle mass. Researcher Dr. Elena Volpi who is investigating muscle mass and the elderly explained, “At this point, what we can say is that older people are at risk for eating too little protein for adequate muscle preservation.”
There is some good news with this complicated and perhaps upsetting information. Research also has shown that resistance training can be applied at just about any time within one’s life, and have a positive impact: “Resistance training (RT) has been shown to be a powerful intervention in the prevention and treatment of sarcopenia (Roth, Ferrel & Hurley 2000). RT has been reported to positively influence the neuromuscular system, hormone concentrations, and protein synthesis rates. ” (Source: Sarcopenia: the Mystery of Muscle Loss)
Exercise should be challenging, but more importantly, enjoyable. Cross-training, such as blending weekly dancing with swimming and maybe a day of yoga each week, can work well for stimulating all the major muscle groups in the body.
89 Year-Old Yoga Teacher
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