What To Do About Age Related Muscle Loss

Losing muscle tone and mass is a fact of aging and no amount of exercising, supplements, herbs, medications or other non-surgical treatments are going to make you a teenage Arnold Schwarzenegger again.

But, that doesn’t mean you need go gentle into that good night. There’s a lot you can do, and a lot to learn about age-related muscle loss. This article may help.

As we age, our bodies are pre-programmed to lose muscle tone and mass, even if we are diligent about proper nutrition and exercise. It might come as a surprise to many that age-related muscle loss can begin as early as your 40s. Some specialists suggest the process begins as early as age 30 and muscle mass begins to decline by about one percent—about a third of a pound—a year. If you are having a mid-life crisis at that age, your recognition of your body’s changing shape may be one of the reasons.

The Vanishing Flesh Syndrome

The most often used scientific or medical term to describe the process of age-related muscle loss is Sarcopenia, which literally is Greek for ‘vanishing flesh’ (we might be glad it’s called Sarcopenia so we don’t have to face the plain English variety every day when we look in the mirror). While Sarcopenia generally describes age-related muscle loss, it also encompasses a range of conditions and degrees of those conditions, including an extremely debilitating version that makes sufferers look like they are victims of malnutrition. There is also some discussion among experts as to what might actually constitute Sarcopenia and whether it represents a more serious condition than just the average person’s muscle loss over time. Either way, the decline in muscle loss is something we think about as we grow older and irrespective of what experts might call it we would all want to know what can be done about it.

The Price Paid

Sarcopenia comes with a significant price tag. In the 2011 text, Sarcopenia – Age-Related Muscle Wasting and Weakness [1], editor Gordon Lynch suggests the “healthcare costs in the United States [as of 2000] associated with Sarcopenia were $18.5 billion.” The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there are 34 million people in the U.S. alone – 13 percent of the total population – suffering from age-related muscle loss and that the number will steadily increase to 70 million by 2030.

One of the more curious aspects of muscle loss is that the better shape you are in, the more noticeable it may be. That’s because for those who are overweight – ok, let’s just say it, fat – fat covers up your body’s muscle loss so you don’t really notice that your muscle tone isn’t what it once was. But, eventually, fat won’t cover up the fact that your once lean and muscular self isn’t that way anymore. And the process is quite insidious. As you age your metabolism slows and that means you are able to burn off calories at a much reduced rate. So, added weight will begin to show and you find yourself more careful about your diet and exercise.

Ok, so we all recognize that aging involves muscle loss. But, there are a number of therapies, treatments and lifestyle adjustments that can ameliorate the process. Research conducted at Tufts University’s Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging showed that people in their 70s, 80s and even 90s were able to double their muscle strength during a 10-week training period.


Most experts agree that the number one method of preventing or at least slowing age-related muscle loss is to exercise. A number of studies have shown that when people exercise muscle loss can be slowed and in some cases muscle mass and strength can increase. For example, in the 1990s, Dr. Miriam Nelson [2] followed a group of 50- to 70-year-old sedentary women for one year. The women lifted free weights twice a week for 40 minutes a session. By the end of the study, their strength had increased an average of 75 percent.

Another study [3] confirmed that older people could get back some of their youthful strength by regular muscle-building exercises.

If you haven’t in your younger years adopted a regular exercise program, leaping into one should only be done with patience, caution and perhaps the help of a knowledgeable trainer or within the context of an exercise program designed for you and others of a similar age or physical condition. Your doctor may want to weigh in on the appropriate exercise program for you.

In general, however, exercise programs that will do the most good at preventing age-related muscle loss will include elements of strength, flexibility and resistance training.

Nutrition and Diet

What you eat has a lot to do with how you progress in an exercise program, your overall health, and the impact on age-related muscle loss.

One of the most important nutritional suggestions has to do with protein, an essential building block of muscle. Although most Americans eat more than the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of protein (0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight for adults), some studies suggest that 20 to 25 percent of seniors consume less than they should—perhaps a side effect of what’s called the “tea-and-toast” diet some older people fall into because of diminished appetite, tooth loss or difficulty preparing meals.

But, it’s not just a matter of telling people to drink more milk or eat more eggs because not all proteins are the same. Again, a doctor or nutritionist may be the best source in deciding what specific dietary changes or adjustments you might want to make. However, a great deal of research supports the importance of protein. One study [4] concluded that “there are compelling data to support the ability of dietary protein to acutely stimulate muscle protein synthesis in aging individuals.”

So, adding protein – if you are not already getting enough – in the amount of 25-30 grams of protein per meal should be helpful [5]. That shouldn’t be too difficult – canned tuna, beef, chicken, fish, pork, eggs, cheese, milk, whey protein, beans/legumes, and nuts are all good sources of protein and adding one or two of the items to every meal is a good way to get as much protein as you may need.

Supplements, Herbs and Vitamins

Any web search for age-related muscle loss information will also turn up a plethora of advertisements for a variety of supplements, herbs and vitamins – too numerous for this article to thoroughly review. Suffice to say that caution is warranted. From steroids to miracle pills – the web is chock-full of sure-fire gimmicks that will promise to turn an 80 year old into an 18 year old.

The best advice before taking any supplement, herb, vitamin or other over-the-counter or mail order product is to check with your doctor or nutritionist.

New Hope

Recent research [6] may have found a significant answer to the issue of Sarcopenia and age-related muscle loss. Writing in the journal Cell Metabolism (2011), researchers reportedly discovered the cause of muscle loss but say they have found a drug to treat it. The researchers found that Sarcopenia happens because of calcium seepage from the human ryanodine receptor channel complex, a group of proteins found in muscle cells. An experimental drug used in lab tests with mice has shown it might shore up those muscles. But, it may be some time until the research translates into a product or treatment that can be useable by humans.

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