Muscle loss is an inevitable occurrence every person will experience once they get to an advanced age. Furthermore, this loss experienced is often greater in most cases than not and until now, the process of muscle loss was not understood.
The human muscles grow stronger each day until most adults get to their 30s. Research has it that most adults get to the peak of their muscle mass sometime in their late 30s to early 40s; after which they experience a gradual loss of muscle mass that can continue its steady, downhill course as we age.
As individuals advance in age, their leg muscles become smaller and weaker, causing problems with everyday movements such as standing, walking fast or even something as minimal as getting out of a chair.
“The muscles need to receive a proper signal from the nervous system to tell them to contract, so we can move around.” researchers say.
This age-connected loss of muscle mass, strength and function are known as Sarcopenia; and affects an estimated 10 to 20 percent of people around or over 65 years, but it can happen quicker than that. People who are physically inactive are at a risk of losing as much as 3 percent to 5 percent of their muscle mass every decade after they clock 30. Sarcopenia literally means “lack of flesh” and limits adults ability to perform many of their routine activities.
Researchers believe the natural loss of muscle in the legs as individuals age, is due to a loss of nerves.
Research team from Manchester Metropolitan University in conjunction with researchers from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, and the University of Manchester looked at muscle tissue microscopically using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and recorded the electrical activity as they pass through the muscle to be able to estimate the numbers and the size of surviving nerves.
It is not clear why connections between muscles and nerves break down with age, but this discovery could be the spark that paves the way for scientists to reverse the condition and put it behind us.
Healthy muscles have a form of protection because surviving nerves send out new branches to rescue some of the detached muscle fibers. This protective mechanism is mostly successful in older adults with large and healthy muscles due to some of the factors that will be subsequently mentioned.
Adults that are 75 years old or older usually have around 30 to 50 percent fewer nerves controlling their legs. What this means is parts of their muscles are disconnected from the nervous system, rendering them incapable of carrying out their previous functions.
According to Prof Jamie McPhee, of Manchester Metropolitan University, young adults normally have 60-70,000 nerves controlling movement in their legs from the lumbar spine, but his research revealed a significant change in old age.
“There was a dramatic loss of nerves controlling the muscles – a 30-60% loss – which means they waste away,” he said.
There is no specific level of lean body mass or muscle mass that can be used to diagnose sarcopenia, but any loss of muscle mass is of concern due to the very strong relationship that exists between muscle mass and strength. Every muscle mass loss is of concern as it reduces strength and mobility. It is pertinent to note that, Sarcopenia is mostly responsible for illnesses and disease, decrease in quality of life and the large health care costs the elderly experience.
What Causes Muscle Loss?
Although sarcopenia largely affects inactive people, the fact that it also occurs in people who stay physically active shows there are other factors that contribute to its development. According to researchers, it includes:
- A reduction in the nerve cells in charge of sending signals from the brain to the muscles to start a movement.
- A lower concentration of some hormones – testosterone, growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor among others. Growth hormones work with protein-destroying enzymes to keep muscle steady through the growth cycle, stress or injury, destruction, and healing. This cycle is a constant, therefore, when things are in balance, the muscles keep their strength over time.
- Less ability to turn protein into energy.
- A decrease in calories or protein intake every day to sustain muscle mass. A diet with insufficient calories and protein diet leads to weight loss and the degeneration of muscle mass. Protein, Vitamin D, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, and Creatine are four nutrients that fight Sarcopenia. Therefore, the older an individual gets, the more of these nutrients they need.
- Immobility – sedentary lifestyle – not making use of the muscle is one of the strongest aiders of sarcopenia. It accelerates muscle loss and increases weakness.
- Inflammation – inflammation sends signals to the body to tear down and rebuild damaged groups of cells after an injury or illness, but during aging, the body usually becomes resistant to the normal growth signals, which tips the balance toward catabolism (destructive metabolism) and muscle loss.
- Severe Stress – Sarcopenia has been noticed to be more common in many other health conditions that increases the stress level in the body. For instance, research shows that people with liver diseases, and up to 20% of people with chronic heart failure experience Sarcopenia.
How to Prevent Muscle Loss
The loss of muscles can be significantly reduced through exercise; specifically, resistance training or strength training. These activities increase the muscle’s strength & endurance using weights or resistance bands.
Resistance training will help neuromuscular system and hormones. It can also help an adult at risk of Sarcopenia, improve their ability to convert protein to energy in just two weeks.
It is important to get the proper number, intensity, and frequency of resistance exercise to enjoy the full benefit with less risk of injury.
Over the years, a few drugs have been studied and are still being studied, for treating Sarcopenia; although drug therapy is not a preferred method of treatment. Sarcopenia can decrease life expectancy and quality of life, but taking the right actions can prevent and even reverse the condition.
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