“Sarcopenia? What’s that? Never heard of it!” Sarcopenia may not be a medical term that you’re familiar with but you need to know about it. It happens to all of us, once we pass thirty, yes, all of us. It puts us at risk of falling and losing our independence when we’re older so it’s vitally important but it’s hardly ever talked about and you aren’t alone if you’ve never even heard of it. So, what is sarcopenia? What causes sarcopenia? Can we stop sarcopenia and can we reverse any effects it’s already had? Here’s a quick guide.
What is it?
Sarcopenia comes from the Greek words sarc, meaning ‘flesh’ and penia meaning ‘not enough of’. Basically, after the age of thirty, our body starts getting rid of muscle. Just a little bit here and there and so slowly that we don’t even notice. Once we’re over fifty we can be losing as much as one percent of our muscle mass every year. It’s part of the ageing process and it happens whether we’re active or inactive but affects us more if we have a sedentary lifestyle. It’s not really clear why it happens, it’s thought to be due to changing hormone levels in our bodies, the fact that our protein requirements (needed to make and maintain muscle) increase but often aren’t fulfilled as we age as and also because the nerve pathways that activate our muscles are slowing down too. Many people become more sedentary when they get older so use the muscles they have less often. If you don’t use them, you lose them.
Why does it matter?
You might not feel too bothered about withering muscles, however, we aren’t just talking about losing the bulk and strength of bulging biceps here. There are many more muscles in the body, ones that keep us mobile and stabilise us. Think of the core, the hips, thighs and ankles. If these muscles weaken, then our risk of falling increases. The World Health Organisation states that falls are the second leading cause of accidental or unintentional injury deaths worldwide. It’s people over 65 who suffer the most number of fatal falls. Remaining steady on our feet and able to rise from our chair and move around our own home helps us to keep our independence in our later years.
When we use our muscles they release myokines which have an anti-inflammatory action in the body and help to reduce our risk of many diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. With a falling muscle mass and more time spent sitting our disease risk inadvertently increases.
The other thing that muscles do is burn energy. As our muscle mass reduces our basal metabolic rate (BMR) falls – this is the amount of energy our body requires to keep ‘ticking over’ everyday. With a lower BMR we don’t need to consume as many calories. Women in particular notice they often gain weight around and beyond the menopause. This is partly due to the fact that we eat the same but with reducing muscle mass our energy requirements are less; we’re just not burning it off as fast. Muscle is lost and fat stores increase often without us really being aware of it.
What can we do about it?
Thankfully two simple things will help prevent sarcopenia.
Firstly and most importantly, we need to start using and building up our muscles. You might know that the current guidelines for physical activity from the Chief Medical Officer include 150 minutes of moderate exercise every week but you might not be aware that they also recommend reducing our sedentary time AND doing muscle strengthening activities on two days a week. Don’t panic, this doesn’t mean you have to join a gym. Structured weight lifting is a great way to improve muscle mass but it isn’t the only way. Lifting heavy shopping bags (yes, I’m telling you to shop more!) or digging in the garden will do it. So will activities that involve jumping and running; grab those dancing shoes, walk up escalators and take the stairs instead of the lift. Have a try with resistance bands for a workout at home. We often get stuck in a rut with our exercise routine and it’s important to mix it up, add in some muscle strengthening and not just rely on cardiovascular exercises to keep us healthy. For those over 65, the CMO guidelines also recommend balance and co-ordination activities on two days a week to help strengthen important muscles but also make sure the nerve pathways that trigger muscle activation are kept firing.
Secondly we need to nourish our muscles by eating well. Muscles need protein, that is after all what they’re made of. Although there are no clear guidelines yet about increasing our protein intake as we age, it seems that our protein requirements probably increase a little. The current Reference Nutrition Intake (RNI) in the UK is 0.75g of protein for each kg you weigh, per day. There’s no need to take extra supplements, just make sure your diet includes plenty of protein rich foods. Here’s some suggestions:
- nuts and seeds
- fish and seafood
- dairy foods such as milk, Greek yoghurt and cheese
- Beans and pulses
- Meat – chicken and turkey breasts and beef
So, sarcopenia is a natural process going on in our bodies but it’s nothing to be afraid of. With a little bit of knowledge and a few simple lifestyle changes we can make a huge difference to our future health by looking after our muscles. Use them or lose them and don’t forget the doctor told you to go shopping!
Photo credits: Featured image; Gratisography. Others; drjulietmcgrattan.com