Many supplements — especially when combined with exercise — can help you gracefully age. Learn about
The Epidemiology of Sarcopenia
The authors of the International Classification of Disease manual recognize sarcopenia as a specific, age-related disease. Treatment has cost health care providers nearly $20 billion every year of this century. Epidemiologists focus on three components of sarcopenia: muscle mass, muscle strength and physical function. Muscle mass remains the most important of these components.
At age 30, you begin losing 1 pound of muscle mass every two years. By age 80, up to 50 percent of all older adults will meet the criteria for sarcopenia. Many of these people have chronic disease. Sarcopenia appears in 15 to 50 percent of cancer patients, 30 to 45 percent of liver failure patients and 60 to 70 percent of other critically ill patients, according to a 2016 review in Nutrition in Clinical Practice.
The Mechanisms of Sarcopenia
Many factors work in combination to cause sarcopenia. Poor nutrition — especially malnourishment — plays a significant role, as does a sedentary lifestyle. Age-related declines in hormones, such as insulin-like growth factor, growth hormone and testosterone, make it difficult to rebuild muscle tissue. Inflammatory chemicals, like prostaglandins, decrease motivation and slow down healing.
A 2015 review in Current Opinion in Pharmacology describes the molecular and cellular mechanisms involved in sarcopenia. Satellite cells, for example, often fail to activate in aging muscles. These cells serve as a building block for your muscles. Without activation, you cannot properly recover after exercise or injury.
The Symptoms of Sarcopenia
A 2019 report in the journal Age and Ageing gives the latest guidelines for diagnosing sarcopenia. Doctors look for decreases in muscle size, feelings of muscle weakness, loss of endurance, poor balance, difficulty managing stairs, loss of appetite and an inability to properly convert nutrients to muscle. Most important, they listen to people describe losing their ability to function.
The Consequences of Sarcopenia
Men over 50 face an uphill battle managing the symptoms of sarcopenia. Yet even more serious problems lie ahead, according to a 2017 paper in Aging Clinical and Experimental Research. These problems include a risk of physical frailty and a loss of life quality. Over time, sarcopenia leads to functional impairment and premature death.
Finding Solutions to Sarcopenia
Sarcopenia is not an enviable result of aging. You can fight back by maintaining your muscle mass as you age. Regular exercise — especially weightlifting — offers you the easiest path to this goal. A 2015 report in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association showed the amazing effectiveness of resistance exercise in men over 50.
Subjects did 12 weeks of resistance exercise. Their muscle mass increased every week during the study. All participants benefited from the weightlifting protocol. That is, unlike drug treatments, exercise increased muscle mass in every single man tested in the study.
The authors of the 2015 report also described a dose-response curve for resistance exercise. The more the participants worked out, the more their muscle mass increased. This finding suggests that you can use weightlifting to ward off sarcopenia by continuing to build muscle as you age.
Weightlifting rarely causes side effects in men over 50, according to a 2015 paper in Gerontology. You may have some soreness or get a minor injury, and it's important to work with a trainer or coach, who will track your progress, verify your technique and keep you safe as you exercise.
Complement Exercise With Dietary Aids
A 2015 review in Advances in Nutrition describes the many benefits of resistance exercise in treating sarcopenia. The authors of this report note how nutritional supplements can complement the anabolic effects of weightlifting. Thus,
Dietary aids alone may have a beneficial effect on muscle mass in older men in some cases. You'll likely need to increase your protein intake to gain mass. Adding specific nutrients to your daily routine can help as well. The best supplements for men over 50 are effective and safe.
Take Leucine for Muscle Growth
Leucine is an essential amino acid that plays an important role in protein synthesis. Getting more leucine from your diet or taking a supplement can increase your supply of muscle proteins once you've reached 50. This increase typically leads to greater muscle mass, according to 2016 article in Molecular Metabolism.
Aging dampens leucine's muscle-building effects, according to a 2016 review in Frontiers in Bioscience. But you can overcome this challenge by further increasing your leucine intake. The authors of the 2016 review recommended that older adults get 9 grams of leucine each day. This amount is three times the recommended daily allowance.
Add Vitamin D Supplements
Many older adults — 65 percent — have low levels of vitamin D. This deficiency can cause muscle wasting in men over 50. Adding vitamin D supplements to a daily leucine-enriched supplement mixture can stop this process and increase your muscle mass, according to a 2015 report in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association.
With vitamin D, it's especially important to keep your intake below the recommended daily allowance. The Office of Dietary Supplements recommends a limit of 600 international units per day. Hypervitaminosis has dramatically increased in recent years, according to a 2017 paper in the journal Nutrition. Symptoms of excess vitamin D include excessive urination, irregular heartbeat and weight loss.
Add Vitamin D3, Carnitine and Creatine
Scientists have mixed other nutrients with leucine as well. A study published in the 2017 volume of Nutrition and Metabolism tested a supplement featuring vitamin D3, carnitine, creatine and leucine in healthy older adults.
Participants received the unique mix, carnitine or a placebo each day for eight weeks. Subjects in the supplement group gained 2 pounds of lean muscle compared those in the placebo group. The supplement also increased the subjects' lower leg strength.
The researchers also collected safety data in this study. In general, the subjects didn't experience side effects. Carnitine increased blood pressure compared to a placebo. However, this finding appears spurious, as carnitine usually lowers blood pressure.
Use Ashwagandha for Muscle Growth
Ancient healers have used ashwagandha to treat reproductive problems in men for centuries. Modern scientists have shown that the increases in testosterone caused by ingesting this plant underlie these effects. Having more testosterone should help men over 50 increase their muscle mass. A 2015 report in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition tested this hypothesis in middle-aged men.
Participants took 600 milligrams of Withania somnifera extract each day for eight weeks. They also lifted weights during this time. Results showed that the men in the treatment group had more lean muscle in their chests and arms. Compared to controls, they also showed greater increases in muscle strength.
Herbal remedies like ashwagandha may cause side effects. A 2015 paper in the Indian Journal of Medical Research evaluated the safety of this ayurvedic treatment in older adults during a three-week trial. The researchers didn't find any evidence of organ damage, but it did cause an increase in urinary mercury. This mercury contamination may come from polluted soil.
Try PUFA Therapy
Supplement makers derive polyunsaturated fats, PUFAs, from fish oil. Doctors increasingly use these fats as an anti-aging therapy, in part because they play an important role in muscle recovery. A 2015 article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition tested the impact of PUFA therapy on the health of older adults.
Subjects received daily doses of PUFA for 24 weeks. The PUFA dose equaled that found in 200 to 400 grams of freshwater fatty fish. Compared to the control group, the PUFA group showed an increase in thigh muscle volume. The therapy also increased grip strength.
About a third of the people in the treatment group reported having a fishy aftertaste following PUFA intake. Nearly twice as many of people in the PUFA group reported stomach problems. Other studies have shown positive side effects of long-term PUFA therapy, including lower levels of blood sugar and higher levels of good cholesterol.
Increase Muscle Mass With Probiotics
Mice received oral doses of a solution containing Lactobacillus plantarum bacteria. The researchers chose a dose comparable to that used by healthy adults. Six weeks of daily probiotic intake decreased body weight but increased muscle mass. It also improved performance measures, including grip strength and endurance.
The mice didn't show any probiotic-related side effects in this study. A 2015 paper in Clinical Infectious Diseases reviewed the safety and risk of probiotic use. Ingesting probiotic organisms remains effective and safe for most populations, including older men over 50. Yet findings in animals might not apply to humans.
Gain Mass With Milk Protein
Milk protein has a well-deserved reputation as a performance-enhancing substance. Its anabolic properties should make it an effective way for you to fight sarcopenia. A 2017 article in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association evaluated this idea in older men with a diagnosis of frailty.
Subjects ingested 30 grams of milk protein or a placebo daily for 24 weeks. They also participated in a weightlifting program. Compared to controls, the men given milk protein showed an increase in type I and type II muscle fibers. This finding suggests that milk protein caused an increase in both muscular endurance and muscular power.
According to the 2017 article, the subjects tested didn't report any side effects. Milk protein, however, can cause allergic reactions in people with lactose intolerance or milk allergy. Some of these reactions seem life-threatening, so it's important to speak with your doctor before ingesting milk products.
- Nutrition in Clinical Practice: Prevalence of Sarcopenia and Associated Outcomes in the Clinical Setting
- Current Opinion in Pharmacology: Cachexia and Sarcopenia
- Age and Ageing: Sarcopenia
- Aging Clinical and Experimental Research: Sarcopenia: An Overview
- Journal of the American Medical Directors Association: There Are No Nonresponders to Resistance-Type Exercise Training in Older Men and Women
- Gerontology: The Osteogenic Effect of Impact-Loading and Resistance Exercise on Bone Mineral Density in Middle-Aged and Older Men: A Pilot Study
- Advances in Nutrition: Nutritional Supplements in Support of Resistance Exercise to Counter Age-Related Sarcopenia
- Molecular Metabolism: Osteocalcin Is Necessary and Sufficient to Maintain Muscle Mass in Older Mice
- Frontiers in Bioscience: Amino Acids in Healthy Aging Skeletal Muscle
- Journal of the American Medical Directors Association: Effects of a Vitamin D and Leucine-Enriched Whey Protein Nutritional Supplement on Measures of Sarcopenia in Older Adults, the PROVIDE Study
- Office of Dietary Supplements: Vitamin D Fact Sheet for Health Professionals
- Nutrition: Increasing Problem of Subclinical and Overt Hypervitaminosis D in India
- Nutrition and Metabolism: Efficacy of a Novel Formulation of L-Carnitine, Creatine, and Leucine on Lean Body Mass and Functional Muscle Strength in Healthy Older Adults
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: Examining the Effect of Withania somnifera Supplementation on Muscle Strength and Recovery
- Indian Journal of Medical Research: Efficacy & Safety Evaluation of Ayurvedic Treatment (Ashwagandha Powder & Sidh Makardhwaj) in Rheumatoid Arthritis Patients
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Fish Oil-Derived n-3 PUFA Therapy Increases Muscle Mass and Function in Healthy Older Adults
- Nutrients: Lactobacillus plantarum TWK10 Supplementation Improves Exercise Performance and Increases Muscle Mass in Mice
- Clinical Infectious Diseases: Risk and Safety of Probiotics
- Journal of the American Medical Directors Association: Protein Supplementation Augments Muscle Fiber Hypertrophy but Does Not Modulate Satellite Cell Content During Prolonged Resistance-Type Exercise Training in Frail Elderly