Poverty of the flesh. That’s the meaning of the term sarcopenia—the loss of muscle mass and strength that comes with aging. Pretty descriptive, isn’t it? Sarcopenia is to our muscles what osteoporosis is to our bones, and many elderly people suffer from both of them. The results of this unfortunate combination are significant frailty, disability, decreased vitality, poor balance, slower gait, falls and fractures.
Much is written about the prevention of osteoporosis, but sarcopenia gets less press. The approaches are similar, though: It’s important to start supporting muscle and bone when we’re young to last us into old age. And for both conditions, dietary, lifestyle and exercise strategies can help in later years.
Muscle mass increases in childhood and peaks during our late teens to mid-to-late 20s. After that it slowly declines. From ages 25 to 50, the decline in muscle mass is roughly 10 percent. Decline accelerates slightly in our 50s and begins in more significantly at 60 years of age. By the time we reach the age of 80, our muscle mass is a little more than half of what it was in our 20s.
What causes muscle mass decline?
One of the key underlying features of sarcopenia is that as we age, our muscle cells lose their ability to respond to growth-promoting substances—especially insulin and insulin-like growth factors. Insulin resistance is also an underlying feature of most cases of obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Another key factor in the development of sarcopenia is inflammation—not the kind that occurs when you sprain your ankle or scrape your knee, but the kind referred to as “silent inflammation.” This stealth internal swelling is the underlying feature in virtually every chronic degenerative disease, including heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. The dietary recommendations given below are heplful for fighting silent inflammation.
The importance of protein
Dietary protein, especially whey protein, is essential in supporting muscle health. Whey protein is a natural by-product of the cheese making process. Cow’s milk has about 6.25 percent protein. Of that protein, 80% is casein (another type of protein) and the remaining 20 percent is whey. When cheese is made, the casein molecules form the cheese and the liquid whey is left behind. To isolate the protein from the whey, other components (lactose, fats and minerals, for example) are filtered out. Whey protein is easier to digest and is better tolerated than casein.
Whey protein has the highest biological value of all proteins. Biological value is a way of rating protein based on how much is actually absorbed, retained and used in the body. One of the key reasons the biological value of whey protein is so high is that it has the highest concentrations of glutamine and branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) found in nature. These amino acids are critical to cellular health, muscle growth and protein synthesis.
Eating protein foods or effecting consuming protein is particularly important in battling muscle loss. In fact, whey protein has tremendous value in preventing muscle wasting in some situations. Clinical trials have also shown that whey protein supplementation increases strength and muscle mass in elderly subjects involved in a weight-training program.*
The typical recommendation is 25 to 50 grams daily; though for severe sarcopenia, a dosage of one gram for every two pounds of body weight is advised.
Nutritional approach to prevent sarcopenia
- Reduce the amount of saturated fat, trans fatty acids, cholesterol and total fat in the diet by eating fewer animal products and more plant foods.
- Increase your intake of omega-3 oils by eating flaxseed oil, walnuts and cold-water fish like salmon. Eat at least two, but no more than three, servings of fish per week.
- Increase the intake of monounsaturated fats and the amino acid arginine by eating more nuts and seeds and using a monounsaturated oil, such as olive or macadamia oil, for cooking purposes.
- Eat five or more servings daily of a combination of vegetables and fruits, especially green, orange and yellow vegetables; dark colored berries; and citrus fruits.
- Limit your intake of refined carbohydrates (sugar and refined grains). Sugar and other refined carbohydrates lead to the development of insulin resistance, which, in turn, increases silent inflammation.
- Consume 25 to 50 grams of whey protein daily.
- If you are on a strength-training program, take 1 gram of creatine for every 50 pounds of body weight.
Weight training reduces sarcopenia
Perhaps the most important step to preventing sarcopenia is to follow a regular strength training program—that is lift weights or engage in resistance exercises. The benefits of strength training are vast, particularly for women and for people over 50. In addition to helping burn more fat, greater muscle mass is associated with a healthier heart, improved joint function, relief from arthritis pain, better antioxidant protection and a higher self esteem.
You don’t have to lift barbells or dumbbells or use clumsy machines to strength train. Resistance exercise—anything that uses your body weight (think push-ups)—counts too. Some forms of yoga even build strength and muscle mass. Bonus: Muscle mass is the primary fat burning furnace in the body, so the more muscle mass you have, the more fat you b