If you are getting older, and I hope that you are considering the alternative, you are probably concerned about age related illnesses. As we are living longer, the medical community is becoming more and more aware of age related problems and their prevention. One that gets little attention is shrinkage. If you are a Seinfeld fan, no not THAT shrinkage. I am referring to age related loss of muscle mass known as sarcopenia. Although many patients and doctors accept it as inevitable, there are preventative steps that can be taken to delay its onset, slow the process down, and improve the quality of life during our senior years.
Sarcopenia is the medical term for the loss of muscle mass that occurs as a natural result of the aging process. Doctors have long focused on the problem of osteoporosis in the elderly. Sarcopenia is a coexisting condition that is equally, if not more, dangerous. It affects millions of senior citizens and is now beginning to get the attention that it deserves. One research study stated in 2004, “Even before significant muscle wasting becomes apparent, ageing is associated with a slowing of movement and a gradual decline in muscle strength, factors that increase the risk of injury from sudden falls and the reliance of the frail elderly on assistance in accomplishing even basic tasks of independent living. Sarcopenia is recognized as one of the major public health problems now facing industrialized nations, and its effects are expected to place increasing demands on public healthcare systems worldwide.”
Sarcopenia generally appears after the age of 40 and accelerates greatly after the age of 75. While very noticeable in people who are physically inactive, it also occurs in active people as well. It cannot be prevented, it can only be slowed down. It is a complex process that occurs as a result of changing hormonal levels, inadequate protein consumption, poor nutrition, lack of proper exercise, stress, and inflammation.
Sarcopenia and osteoporosis tend to be comorbid conditions. The loss of muscle mass and muscle tension exacerbates osteoporosis, as muscles are needed for the mechanical stress that keeps bones healthy. Until recently, the focus has been on dietary solutions to osteoporosis. Recent research indicates that diet alone is not enough to prevent osteoporosis. Maintaining muscular strength is required as well. Muscle mass is necessary for a good metabolism, allowing us to burn more calories efficiently throughout the day. Loss of muscle mass leads to weight gain, explaining why our caloric intake may be the same while our weight increases. The combination of weight gain, diminished bone strength, and loss of muscle mass sets off a chain of events that can be devastating. This loss of musculoskeletal structure effects our kinesthetic sense creating a propensity towards falling. Think about how many seniors you know who have been hurt by age related falls. This combination is the reason why, as the fall and lack of protective muscle increases potential for injury.
Prevention starts with proper nutrition. While it has long been believed that the “typical” American diet consists of too much protein, recent studies indicate that older Americans don’t take in enough. Seniors need sufficient high quality protein in their diet to maintain lean muscle mass. We have been conditioned to believe that meat is bad, particularly red meat, and as a result most of us stop eating enough lean meat after age 40. Coincidentally, this is when sarcopenia usually develops. Studies indicate that the required daily amount of protein is not sufficient for senior citizens. And, if the senior is engaging in resistance training, they need even more. It is recommended that, in addition to adequate protein in meals, seniors consume two protein shakes per day consisting of 20-25 grams of protein consumed first thing in the morning and with in a half-hour or so of exercise.
In addition to increased protein consumption, other nutritional supplements may be beneficial. Be sure to include the following in your diet:
– Whey protein. A typical scoop of whey protein contains 25 to 30 grams of quality protein. Mixing one scoop with water twice a day will ensure that you are consuming adequate amounts of protein. Be careful to notice the increase in calories that this will give your diet, and adjust the rest of your diet accordingly.
-Vitamin D. Doctors have been suggesting vitamin D to help prevent osteoporosis. If you’re not taking vitamin D now, add it to your diet. You may not believe you are prone to osteoporosis, by we all are prone to age related shrinkage.
-Creatine. Muscle atrophy in adults occurs as a result of the loss of the ability for the muscle to contract. Creatine improves the contraction of fast twitch muscle fibers, those that come into play during resistance training. Creatine is a very inexpensive supplement that can provide big benefits for the muscular system. It has been studied extensively for over 20 years, and recent studies have focused on its impact on sarcopenia. One study concluded, “Creatine supplementation may be a useful therapeutic strategy for older adults to attenuate loss in muscle strength and performance of functional living tasks.”
You may not have to purchase creatine, as it is an ingredient in many types of whey protein products. Read the ingredients that are in your protein powder. Creatine may be one of them.If not, creatine monohydrate is available in health food stores.
By far the most important preventative step one can take to stop it age related shrinkage is resistance training. Weight training is by far the most obvious and best method, but push-ups, pull-ups, and good old calisthenics all provide resistance. It does not take a lot, but it does take consistent work over a long period of time. Resistance training combats muscle loss, strengthens bones, and helps optimize hormonal levels. Using barbells and dumbbells, instead of the weight machines found in most commercial gyms can also improve your balance and kinesthetic sense. Stay away from weight machines and exercises where you are sitting as much as possible. While these can help somewhat, they are not the best overall method. Adding some aerobic activity as simple as walking, some mobility work such as yoga or a stretching routine, leads to a well-rounded, complete exercise routine.
And a personal suggestion that I would make is DO NOT JOIN A COMMERCIAL GYM. The biggest reason than exercise regimens do not last is because people do not make them convenient. Unless you are extremely disciplined and have a lot of time on your hands “going to the gym” is going to be to inconvenient. The Center for Disease Control recommends resistance exercise that you can do at home. I believe this is the best way to go with your exercise program. This is not a six week, crash course, in “I need to look good this summer at the beach.” This is a lifestyle change that is going to prevent you from problems now and in the future. It must be something that you are going to do consistently, and hopefully learned to enjoy. Here is a link to the recommended exercise regimen of the Center for Disease Control:
Follow their recommendations if you don’t know how to begin resistance training. Notice that you don’t need a lot of equipment. I believe that equipment you have handy, and at home that you will use, are far better than the thousands of dollars worth of the equipment at the commercial gym that you never go to.
I hope these suggestions and this information was not only interesting but useful. Age related shrinkage is inevitable, but it can be delayed substantially. Get started on these suggestions as soon as possible, consult your primary care physician for support, and get started. It can be not only life-saving, but also a lot of fun.
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