New Studies Focus on Preventing Muscle Loss, as Key to Healthy Aging

Muscle Atrophy or Sarcopenia (left) - may be key factor in loss of independence with aging, studies find (image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)The National Institutes of Health last week awarded a $5.2 million grant to the University of Florida’s Institute on Aging, for continued studies of what causes age-related muscle loss (Sarcopenia) and how to prevent it. According to a news release issued by the University of Florida (UF), UF was “one of 15 institutions in the nation to receive the award.”

Increasingly, researchers are focusing on ways to stave off Sarcopenia (the loss of muscle mass that accompanies aging) as the key ingredient to helping seniors maintain independence.

If fact, according to recent reporting by the Sun Sentinel, “studies increasingly suggest it’s not the mind, bones or heart” that is the most vital to seniors’ independence, but rather “it’s their muscles.”

“Although aging takes its toll in varied ways — hip fracture, stroke, heart disease, arthritis, mental decline — mounting research suggests muscle loss is the main process driving all those changes,” according to Dr. Marco Pahor, the UF Institute on Aging’s Director and principal investigator, and as pointed out in the UF release.

The UF Institute on Aging will use the Institutes of Health grant to continue their research into “ways to prevent or slow the muscle loss that occurs with age, as well as the role of genetic factors,” according to the report. “The team also is looking into whether medical interventions, such as taking the male hormone testosterone or the antioxidant resveratrol, improve physical and cognitive function.”

Background: Debilitating Effects of Sarcopenia (Muscle Loss)

Recent reports have found that “most seniors have never heard of Sarcopenia,” and “there are no Sarcopenia education and advocacy groups, as there are for Alzheimer’s or diabetes.”

“I don’t think people understand that muscle loss can be behind osteoporosis, falls and balance,” Joseph Gatz, an exercise physiologist at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Florida told the Sun Sentinel.

Studies suggest that debilitating Sarcopenia may affect 40 percent of people aged 80 and over, and accounts for $18.5 million in annual health-care expenditures nationally, according to reporting by the Sun Sentinel.

“People with muscle loss are more likely to fall. And falls are the main reason seniors end up in health-care institutions, where up to 60 percent of the residents have Sarcopenia,” according to the Sun Sentinel‘s report.

“That domino effect costs everyone money. Medicaid, the taxpayer-funded program for the poor that is the only government program covering nursing home care, spent $4.8 billion on long-term care in Florida [alone] last year.”

What is Sarcopenia and What Can be Done to Stave it Off?

According to a recent study conducted by scientists at the University of Southampton, UK and published in the Journal of Aging Research, “Sarcopenia is the loss of muscle mass and strength that occurs with advancing age. Although definitions (and therefore estimates of prevalence) vary, it is widely recognised as a common condition among older adults, and one that is associated with huge personal and financial costs.”

“Prevention of age-related losses in muscle mass and strength is key to protecting physical capability in older age and enabling independent living,” the researchers observed.

“Declining muscle mass and strength are expected components of ageing,” wrote the Southampton researchers. “However, the rate of decline differs across the population, suggesting that modifiable behavioural factors such as diet and lifestyle may be important influences on muscle function in older age.”

The Role of Exercise. Previous studies had found that “decreased physical activity with aging appears to be the key factor involved in producing sarcopenia.”

The UK researchers observed that “resistance exercise training interventions have been shown to be effective in increasing muscle strength and improving physical function in older adults.”

The Role of Diet. The researchers went on to study the role that diet in combination with resistance training may play in maintaining muscle mass.

They noted previous studies finding that dietary protein is a key to maintaining muscle mass in older adults:

“Protein is considered a key nutrient in older age. Dietary protein provides amino acids that are needed for the synthesis of muscle protein, and importantly, absorbed amino acids have a stimulatory effect on muscle protein synthesis after feeding. There is some evidence that the synthetic response to amino acid intake may be blunted in older people, particularly at low intakes, and when protein is consumed together with carbohydrate. Recommended protein intakes may, therefore, need to be raised in older people in order to maintain nitrogen balance and to protect them from sarcopenic muscle loss.”

The researchers pointed to additional evidence that “insufficient protein intake may be an important contributor to impaired physical function.” For example, they cited a 2008 study conducted by scientists at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, which assessed loss of lean muscle mass in older adults over a three-year period using dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry. That study found that the participants with protein intakes in the top fifth of the distribution lost 40% less lean mass over the three-year follow-up period when compared with those in the bottom fifth.

“Protein and/or amino acid supplementation should, therefore, have the potential to slow sarcopenic muscle loss,” the UK researchers concluded.

They observed that lifelong diet will have an impact, and concluded that “Optimising diet and nutrition throughout life may be key to preventing sarcopenia and promoting physical capability in older age.”

Resistance Exercise and Diet Combined. The scientists called for additional research into the beneficial effects of combining exercise training with dietary supplementation.

“A further issue in understanding a possible protective role for diet in sarcopenia is … the potential for interactions between diet and exercise, and the extent to which interventions that combine supplementation and exercise training may be more effective than changing nutrient intake alone,” the UK scientists wrote.

Conclusions; Implications

Researchers thus already have found strong evidence that both physical activity and a healthy diet can slow muscle loss and contribute to longevity, independence and emotional well-being.

“Even people in their 70s and beyond can improve muscle function with simple daily exercises that can be done at home,” said Joseph Gatz, the exercise physiologist at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale.

Diabetes, stroke, heart disease and sedentary lifestyles contribute to muscle loss, according to Dr. Marco Pahor, the Director and principal investigator at the UF Institute of Aging. The answer, however, is not as simple as getting the elderly to exercise, according to Dr. Pahor.

“Of course exercise helps, but it also puts seniors more at risk of falls and injuries, and even cardiovascular events,” he said. “The key is to find out what exercises are best, and the optimal amount and intensity.”

That is where the new research funded by the National Institutes of Health grant will come in. UF plans to open a 100,000-square-foot research and academic center near Orlando this summer. Researchers there will expand on a separate $64 million nationwide study exploring whether and how physical activity helps seniors be more mobile and independent as they age.

More Information

For more information on Sarcopenia, see Sarcopenia: an undiagnosed condition in older adults.

See also, the U.S. Department of Agriculture: Low Protein + Low Exercise = Sarcopenia

See related HelpingYouCare™ reports on:

National Osteoporosis Awareness & Prevention Month Spotlights Bone Health

Lifting Weights May Improve Seniors’ Brain Function More than Walking Does, New Study Finds

Physically Active Seniors May Live Longer, Study Suggests

Benefits of Weight Training for People Over 50 (Video)

Exercise Changes DNA for the Better, New Study Finds

You’re Never Too Old to Exercise

Harvard Guide to Exercise – A Program You Can Live With

For more information on Osteoporosis (characterized by bone loss and weaking of the bones) and Arthritis, see the HelpingYouCare™ resource pages on Arthritis, Osteoporosis & Rheumatic Conditions, including:

For more information on lifestyle factors that promote healthy aging and prevent diseases, see the HelpingYouCare™ resource pages on Wellness/ Healthy Living for Seniors & Caregivers, including:

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