Sarcopenia Among Seniors can be Prevented

A senior doing push-ups at a gym. (iStockphoto/Thinkstock)
A senior doing push-ups at a gym. (iStockphoto/Thinkstock)

Sarcopenia is not a disease. But it may kill you. It makes you frail because there is incremental loss of strength, increasing the risk of hospitalization and death. Sarcopenia is a Greek word which means “poverty of flesh.” It is part of aging. The skeletal muscles degenerate 0.5 to one per cent per year after the age of 25. Older adults lose about three per cent of their lean body mass each decade.

In the United States, an estimated 53 percent of men and 43 percent of women over 80 are sarcopenic, says an article in the New York Times.

The European Working Group on Sarcopenia in Older People (EWGSOP) says that for the diagnosis of sarcopenia, there should be presence of low muscle mass and low muscle function (strength or performance). The exact reason for sarcopenia is not known. Lack of exercise increases the likelihood of sarcopenia. Muscle fibres are replaced with fat and there is an increase in fibrous tissue – akin to scar tissue.

As the aging process keeps marching on, there is a tendency to be less physically active. That should be avoided if you want your muscles to maintain bulk and strength. Studies have shown exercise in the very old can increase strength and muscle function and improve balance. This will reduce the risk of falling and breaking bones. Your capacity to live independently will increase.

It has been shown sarcopenia is an important independent predictor of disability, linked to poor balance, gait speed, falls, and fractures. Sarcopenia is very similar to osteoporosis where there is loss of bone caused by inactivity. Osteoporosis can be prevented with regular exercise just like sarcopenia. Combination of sarcopenia and osteoporosis in old age causes significant frailty and risk of falling.

There are two ways to prevent and treat sarcopenia. One is regular exercise and second one is intake of adequate amount of dietary protein.

Regular exercise increases the ability and capacity of skeletal muscle to synthesize proteins in response to short term resistance exercise. Thirty minutes of walking three times a week and light resistance exercise three times a week can do wonders for physical strength in frail individuals. For an elderly person who is not able to lift light weights, should try water aerobics.

Having a good high protein diet is important. In the elderly, it should be more than the amount recommended to prevent deficiency disease, says the Times article quoting one of the experts interviewed by the paper. For older adults, four ounces of fish, chicken or turkey a day, and an additional protein snack in the afternoons to combat a dip in energy will help. Also include vegetarian protein sources like soy or quinoa, to provide variety without dietary fat, says the expert.

Other strategies include: use of testosterone or anabolic steroids, agents such as DHEA and human growth hormone, selective androgen receptor modulators (SARMs), and the fatty acids EPA and DHA contribute to increased muscle strength. Some of these treatments have side effects and some have not proven to be of benefit. So, high protein intake (if there is no kidney disease) and regular exercise to build strength remains the main therapy to prevent and treat sarcopenia.

Remember, November is Seniors’ Falls Prevention Month.

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