It's a common frustration that many older people face: I'm not as strong as I used to be. What gives?
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Well, it turns out there's a name for it. This age-related loss muscle loss is called sarcopenia, according to a November 2018 article published in Best Practice & Research: Clinical Rheumatology.
And, unfortunately, it happens to just about everyone. People lose as much as 5 percent of their muscle mass per decade after they hit age 30, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Yes, the old "if you don't use it, you'll lose it" expression rings true.
As people age, they tend to become less active than they were in their younger years. Sometimes this is a result of living with a condition or disease that causes fatigue or discomfort, explains Michael Moody, CPT, a Chicago-based personal trainer, certified senior fitness specialist and creator of the podcast The Elements of Being.
2. Nutritional Gaps
People tend to eat fewer calories as they get older, Brooke O'Connell, RDN, LDN, registered dietitian with Glanbia Performance Nutrition, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Between the ages of 40 and 70, many people unintentionally reduce their daily caloric intake by 25 percent, according to a February 2019 review published in Clinical Nutrition. That means nutrient intake is on a downward slope as well.
Getting fewer calories, protein as well as vitamins and minerals can lead to muscle loss over time, O'Connell says.
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3. Changes in Muscle Fiber Types
Your body has two main types of skeletal muscle fibers (aka cells): slow-twitch and fast-twitch. Slow-twitch fibers are small and operate with a slow-and-steady pace, kind of like the Energizer Bunny, and fast-twitch ones are big and powerful, according to the American Council on Exercise.
While both are important to overall muscle health and function, as you age, it's the fast-twitch muscle fibers that tend to drop off more quickly, according to a June 2014 review in Current Opinion in Rheumatology. That means that as you lose muscle, your power takes the biggest hit.
4. Hormonal Changes
Testosterone, which plays an important role in determining the body's muscle mass, also declines with age. This process starts around age 40 and decreases at a rate of about 1 percent per year, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
5. Increased Inflammation
Inflammation comes with certain diseases and aging in general and makes it harder to remain active and increases the likelihood of disability. All of that gets in the way of muscle growth, according to the Current Opinion in Rheumatology review
The Importance of Muscle Health for Longevity
Maintaining and building muscle as you age can help you live a longer, healthier life.
According to a June 2015 study published in The American Journal of Medicine, the amount of muscle someone has can predict their longevity, with more muscle mass in older adults being linked to lower mortality risk — from any cause.
For instance, an October 2012 study published in Clinical Nutrition found that among people older than 80 living with sarcopenia, 27 percent reported falling during the study's two-year follow-up. That's compared with less than 10 percent of 80-plus-year-olds without sarcopenia.
More falls and injuries increase your risk of disability, which can lead to a loss of independence if it becomes dangerous to live on your own.
What's more, age-related muscle loss is associated with an increased risk in chronic conditions including heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes.
For example, in an April 2020 study in the Journal of the Endocrine Society, people assigned male at birth (AMAB) who had sarcopenia were significantly more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. The researchers note that muscle plays an essential role in blood sugar regulation.
4 Ways to Support Your Muscles As You Age
Even if you're well into your golden years, it's not too late to build back some of that lost muscle. Here are four things you can do to thwart sarcopenia and age-related muscle loss.
1. Move More
An inactive lifestyle speeds up the muscle-loss process, according to the Cleveland Clinic. One of your best defenses, then, is staying active.
Prioritize activities that increase blood flow and oxygen to your muscles, strengthen the brain-to-muscle connection and help you maintain range of motion in your hips and shoulders, Moody suggests.
2. Prioritize Protein
Protein is the macronutrient that promotes growth and development, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. And older adults usually don't get enough of it.
Indeed, a March 2020 study published in Frontiers in Nutrition found older people get about 83 grams of protein each day, which is significantly lower than in younger people.
Even though the Recommended Daily Allowance is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of your body weight, the researchers suggest older people need more — somewhere between 1 and 1.5 grams per kilogram — to stay healthy. For a person who weighs 200 pounds, that works out to about 91 to 136 grams of protein per day.
Try spreading your protein intake across meals and increasing protein intake at breakfast and lunch to mitigate age-related muscle loss.
O'Connell also says not to overlook non-meat sources of protein for these daytime meals, such as a Greek yogurt parfait for breakfast or adding eggs, cheese, nuts or beans to a salad for lunch.
3. Get More Vitamin D
"Vitamin D is the most prominent nutrient deficiency for older adults, and depleted vitamin D levels are associated with decreased muscle strength," O'Connell says.
If you're deficient, your doctor may recommend a vitamin D supplement, but you can also meet your needs by thoughtfully including vitamin D in your diet. O'Connell suggests choosing products like milk and cereal that are fortified with the vitamin in addition to increasing your intake of natural sources such as salmon, sardines, canned tuna and egg yolks.
4. Do Resistance Training
Any type of strength training can help. A February 2012 meta-analysis published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise reviewed 49 studies involving people AMAB ages 50 or older and found resistance training led to a 2.4-pound gain in lean body mass.
And don't be afraid to make your workouts more difficult as you get stronger with more weight, more reps or more sets.
"Your body is a complex system that requires training and movement in different planes," Moody says. Once your body is no longer being challenged, "that's a perfect time to pivot and begin injecting a focus on another weakness."
Be patient. It could take six to eight weeks to see results, per the Cleveland Clinic. Moody says it rests on your diligence, effort, focus and, most importantly, routine.
"Your success will depend on your consistency, appropriate challenge and frequency," he says.
If you're new to exercise, it's a good idea to assess your strengths, limitations and range of motion before getting started, Moody says. "Find a second set of eyes, like a doctor, physical therapist or personal trainer for a thorough examination," he suggests. They can help point out your blind spots and advise you on how to approach exercise safely.
The Best Strength Training Workouts for Muscle Health
- Best Practice & Research: Clinical Rheumatology: “Sarcopenia”
- Cleveland Clinic: “How Can You Avoid Muscle Loss as You Age?”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Preserve Your Muscle Mass”
- American Council on Exercise: “Muscle Fiber Types: Fast-Twitch vs. Slow-Twitch”
- Clinical Nutrition: Does Nutrition Play a Role in the Prevention and Management of Sarcopenia?
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Testosterone, Aging, and the Mind”
- Clinical Nutrition: “Sarcopenia as a Risk Factor for Falls in Elderly Individuals: Results from the ilSIRENTE Study”
- US National Library of Medicine: “Protein in Diet”
- Frontiers in Nutrition: “Amount, Source and Pattern of Dietary Protein Intake Across the Adult Lifespan: A Cross-Sectional Study”
- Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: Influence of Resistance Exercise on Lean Body Mass in Aging Adults: A Meta-Analysis
- Journal of the Endocrine Society: "The Relationship of Lean Body Mass with Aging to the Development of Diabetes"
- Current Opinion in Rheumatology: “Sarcopenia in Older Adults”