6 Ways to Prevent Sarcopenia (Age-Related Muscle Loss)
Though you might not feel it or see it, muscle loss starts to occur (slowly but surely) after age 30. This process is known as sarcopenia and it has serious consequences ranging from brittle bones to loss of mobility. Though muscle can be re-gained, the more you lose and longer you wait, the harder it becomes to get that muscle mass back. Here are some ways to prevent muscle loss while improving overall health:
1. Weight-bearing exercise
Muscle fibers have amazing adaptability–this is how they grow and get stronger over time when weights are applied–as well as how they shrink and get weak when there is no weight-bearing activity. Although cardio (like running, walking, or dancing) can promote a healthy heart, strength training is the type of exercise that will increase muscle strength, improve functional ability and prevent muscle loss. This can be done using weights, resistance bands or even body weight.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends weight training 2-3 times per week and targeting all major muscle groups. Not only does this keep muscles strong, weight bearing exercise also strengthens bones and can improve overall health in many ways! Within 3 to 4 months of weight training, a two- to threefold increase in strength has been documented in older adults. Here are some tips if you’re thinking about starting an exercise routine.
2. Dietary Protein
Protein is the building block of muscle tissue. In order to maintain your muscle mass, you have to eat the right amount of protein. If you’re not consuming enough, muscles have no way to sustain themselves and will start to weaken. Several factors (like age, gender, health, etc.) determine the amount of protein one needs every day. Also, the more physical activity you engage in the more protein you need. In addition, aging can change your intestinal lining and make it more difficult to absorb nutrients, so this can increase the amount of protein you need. First, you should find out how much protein you need, then figure out how to hit that target or more on a daily basis! This is more challenging for vegans/vegetarians than for meat-eaters.
3. Total Calories
Chances are that if you’re not consuming enough calories, you are probably not getting all the protein you need each day. This happens especially in older age. It can be due to loss of appetite or other conditions present. If you are losing weight or have had a significant amount of unplanned weight loss, you should talk to your doctor or reach out to a local Registered Dietitian to help you get back on track.
4. Vitamin D
Vitamin D deficiency is the most common deficiency in older adults regardless of race or ethnicity and this is probably even more common among vegans rather than non-vegans. Although it’s key role in bone health has long been known, vitamin D’s role in muscle health is slowly being discovered.
Studies have indicated that low vitamin D levels in the elderly are associated with low muscle strength, but this does not prove that low vitamin D levels cause weakness (2). Despite this, supplementation with vitamin D in people with low levels has shown to increase muscle strength and reduce risk of falls in the elderly (3).
You can get vitamin D by consuming vitamin D rich foods like fortified milk, salmon, canned sardines, fortified orange juice or cereal. You can also get it from the sun! 30 minutes twice a week of direct sun exposure (without sunscreen) between the hours of 10am and 3pm. Vitamin D supplements should be discussed with a health care professional.
Creatine is a substance made by the body (from the amino acids methionine, glycine, arginine) and stored mostly in the muscles. Foods like fish and red meat are rich sources of creatine. Creatine enhances physical performance and muscle strength by prolonging time to fatigue. In other words, when your creatine stores are high, you can work out for longer, which ultimately makes you stronger. This has been studied to be more effective with high intensity workouts (like in weight training) rather than low intensity workouts (like jogging, walking).
Preliminary studies indicate that in older adults, creatine supplementation together with weight training appears to enhance muscle mass gains, strength and physical performance better than weight training alone (4). Creatine supplements should be discussed with a health care professional but are a convenient form of creatine especially for vegans/vegetarians who might find it challenging to consume sufficient amounts from plant sources.
6. Hormone replacement therapy
Hormone imbalances can occur as we age for several reasons. This goes for men as well as women. For example, both decreases in testosterone or estrogen can lead to muscle loss in men and women, respectively. You should talk to your health care provider if you are considering hormone replacement therapy.
1. Mazzeo RS. Exercise and the older adult. American College of Sports Medicine. Available at: http://www.acsm.org/docs/current-comments/exerciseandtheolderadult.pdf
2. Houston, et al. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2007; 62(4): 440-46.
3. Vitamin D and muscle. In: Bischoff-Ferrari H, Dawson-Hughes B, ed. Nutritional Influences on Bone Health. 2010: 109-113.
4. Devries MC, et al. Creatine supplementation during resistance training in older adults: A meta-analysis. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2014; 46(6): 1194-1203
By: Scarlett Full, in-house Registered Dietitian