Why Must We Fight Sarcopenia … And What Is It?

Don Beaver, Director of Fitness

How many of us have ever heard the word “sarcopenia” and know what it is? Sarcopenia is defined as the progressive loss of muscle mass and strength as we age, primarily affecting +/-20% of those of us who are older than  65. Generally speaking, muscle mass increases through our first 35 years of life and is followed by a leveling off or slow decline until about 65 years of age when muscle mass can decline much more rapidly.

Symptoms of sarcopenia include loss of stamina, walking slower, difficulty climbing stairs, poor balance, difficulty performing daily activities, and a decline in muscle mass. Further, it can lead to higher rates of falls (leading to broken and replaced joints); chronic disease; the need for nursing care, assisted living, or long-term care; and, ultimately, increased mortality—in other words, a decreased quality of life and lifespan. Not exactly a rosy picture.

What Can We Do to Combat Sarcopenia?

We’ve all heard the term “Move it or lose it.” Well, that is certainly a truism in this case. The No. 1 activity to prevent and even reverse sarcopenia is resistance training, including weightlifting and using resistance bands so that you stimulate muscle fibers and your overall muscle mass. A study of 57 adults aged 65 to 94 who engaged in resistance exercise three times per week increased muscle strength over a 12-week period. Aerobic activity and walking can also prevent and even reverse sarcopenia. Another study of 227 Japanese adults older than 65 found that six months of walking actually increased muscle mass. Note: Your Anza Athletic Club has numerous cardiovascular machines and group exercise classes for aerobic activity. Many of these classes serve to keep participants independent (i.e., Senior Balance and SilverSneakers), while others are geared to increase balance and core strength—think Yoga and Pilates classes.

Second, a healthy diet that includes protein (a study of men older than 65 revealed that a daily 15-gram supplement of essential amino acids—building blocks of protein—led to muscle growth). Other sources of protein are meat, fish, and eggs. Vitamin D increases muscle strength and bone density (remember those milk commercials?), thereby reducing the risk of falling. Omega-3 fatty acids—think oily fish (mackerel, tuna, and/or fish oil supplements)—will also keep sarcopenia at bay.

Three years ago, my brother and I had to make a very difficult decision to have our parents admitted to an assisted living facility. This life change was primarily due to the fact that their mobility had decreased to a dangerous level and, as a result, they lost their independence. So, please pay attention to this article and remain active and independent as long as possible, and enjoy the journey!