It's a common frustration that many older people face: I'm not as strong as I used to be. What gives?
Well, it turns out there's a name for it. This age-related loss of muscle mass and strength is called sarcopenia, according to a November 2018 article published in Best Practice & Research: Clinical Rheumatology.
And, unfortunately, it happens to just about everyone. Generally, muscle loss begins around age 50, per the Cleveland Clinic, and about 50 percent of adults will experience it by their 80th birthday, according to an April 2012 article published in Family Practice.
5 Causes of Sarcopenia
First, some grim news: People lose as much as 5 percent of their muscle mass per decade after they hit age 30, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Here are five reasons why:
Yes, the old "if you don't use it, you'll lose it" expression rings true.
Normally, exercise releases muscle growth factors, which stimulate muscle regeneration. But that process declines with age, according to the Family Practice article.
Plus, older people are less active in general, sometimes as a result of having a disease that makes them tired and in pain, according to a November 2012 article published in Current Opinion in Rheumatology.
2. Poor Nutrition
People tend to consume fewer calories as they get older, Brooke O'Connell, RDN, LDN, registered dietitian with Glanbia Performance Nutrition, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Between the ages of 40 and 70, calories are reduced by about 25 percent — and that means nutrient intake is on a downward slope as well, according to a February 2019 review published in Clinical Nutrition. That can lead to weight loss and muscle loss over time, O'Connell says.
3. Decrease in Muscle Fibers
The Current Opinion in Rheumatology article notes that fast-twitch muscle fibers (which aid the body in power-based moves, according to the American Council on Exercise) decline with age, which contributes to muscle decline overall.
4. Changing Hormones
Testosterone, which plays an important role in determining the body's muscle mass, also declines with age. This process starts around age 40 and decreases at a rate of about 1 percent per year, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
5. Increased Inflammation
Inflammation comes with certain diseases and aging in general and makes it harder to remain active and increases the likelihood of disability. All of that gets in the way of muscle growth, according to the Current Opinion in Rheumatology article.
Why You Should Try to Maintain Your Muscle
Sarcopenia can be dangerous. According to the Cleveland Clinic, it can make you more frail and put you at increased risk of falling or other injuries.
An October 2012 study published in Clinical Nutrition found 27 percent of people over age 80 with sarcopenia reported falling during the study's two-year follow-up, compared with less than 10 percent of 80-plus-year-olds without sarcopenia.
More falls and injuries increase your risk of disability, which can lead to a loss of independence if it becomes dangerous to live on your own, according to the Family Practice article.
"Vitamin D is the most prominent nutrient deficiency for older adults, and depleted vitamin D levels are associated with decreased muscle strength."
For older men specifically, sarcopenia is also linked to the development of diabetes, according to an April 2020 study in the Journal of the Endocrine Society. The researchers note that muscle plays an essential role in blood sugar regulation, although they weren't able to conclude why women don't seem to be affected the same way.
In short, you want to preserve and build muscle as you age in order to live a longer and healthier life.
According to a June 2015 study published in The American Journal of Medicine, the amount of muscle an older person has can predict his or her risk of dying, with more muscle mass index being linked to lower mortality risk.
How to Prevent Sarcopenia
Even if you're well into your golden years, it's not too late to build back some of that lost muscle. Here are four things you can do to thwart sarcopenia.
1. Stay Active
An inactive lifestyle speeds up the muscle-loss process, according to the Cleveland Clinic. One of your best defenses, then, is staying active.
Prioritize activities that increase blood flow and oxygen to your muscles, strengthen the brain-to-muscle connection and help you maintain range of motion in your hips and shoulders, suggests Michael Moody, a Chicago-based personal trainer, certified senior fitness specialist and creator of the podcast The Elements of Being.
Some good options include:
- Light hiking
- Swimming laps
- Body-weight movements
2. Prioritize Protein
Protein is the macronutrient that promotes growth and development, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. And older people usually don't get enough of it.
Indeed, a March 2020 study published in Frontiers in Nutrition found older people consume about 83 grams of protein each day, which is significantly lower than younger people.
Even though the Recommended Daily Allowance is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of weight, the researchers suggest older people need more — somewhere between 1 and 1.5 grams per kilogram — to stay healthy.
They suggest spreading your protein intake across meals and increasing protein intake at breakfast and lunch as one way to mitigate muscle loss.
O'Connell says not to overlook non-meat sources of protein for these daytime meals, such as a Greek yogurt parfait for breakfast or adding eggs, cheese, nuts or beans to a salad for lunch.
3. Pay Attention to Vitamin D
"Vitamin D is the most prominent nutrient deficiency for older adults, and depleted vitamin D levels are associated with decreased muscle strength," O'Connell says.
If you're deficient, your doctor may recommend a vitamin D supplement, but you can also meet your needs by thoughtfully including vitamin D in your diet. O'Connell suggests choosing products like milk and cereal that are fortified with the vitamin in addition to increasing your intake of natural sources such as salmon, sardines, canned tuna and egg yolks.
4. Embrace Progressive Resistance Training
As in, don't be afraid to make your workouts more difficult as you get stronger with more weight, more reps or more sets.
"Your body is a complex system that requires training and movement in different planes," Moody says. Once your body is no longer being challenged, "that's a perfect time to pivot and begin injecting a focus on another weakness."
Any type of resistance training should help. A meta-analysis published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise reviewed 49 studies involving men ages 50 or older and found resistance training led to a 2.4-pound gain in lean body mass.
Workouts to Try
Be patient, however. It could take six to eight weeks to see results, per the Cleveland Clinic. Moody says it rests on your diligence, effort, focus and, most importantly, routine.
"Your success will depend on your consistency, appropriate challenge and frequency," he says.
If you're new to exercise, it's a good idea to assess your strengths, limitations and range of motion before getting started, Moody says. "Find a second set of eyes, like a doctor, physical therapist or personal trainer for a thorough examination," he suggests. He or she can help point out your blind spots and advise you on how to approach exercise safely.
Is This an Emergency?
- Best Practice & Research: Clinical Rheumatology: “Sarcopenia”
- Cleveland Clinic: “How Can You Avoid Muscle Loss as You Age?”
- Family Practice: “Sarcopenia in the Elderly”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Preserve Your Muscle Mass”
- Current Opinion in Rheumatology: “Sarcopenia in Older Adults”
- American Council on Exercise: “Muscle Fiber Types: Fast-Twitch vs. Slow-Twitch”
- Clinical Nutrition: Does Nutrition Play a Role in the Prevention and Management of Sarcopenia?
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Testosterone, Aging, and the Mind”
- Clinical Nutrition: “Sarcopenia as a Risk Factor for Falls in Elderly Individuals: Results from the ilSIRENTE Study”
- US National Library of Medicine: “Protein in Diet”
- Frontiers in Nutrition: “Amount, Source and Pattern of Dietary Protein Intake Across the Adult Lifespan: A Cross-Sectional Study”
- Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: Influence of Resistance Exercise on Lean Body Mass in Aging Adults: A Meta-Analysis
- Journal of the Endocrine Society: "The Relationship of Lean Body Mass with Aging to the Development of Diabetes"