There’s more to Boston than baked beans

This fall the mention of Boston brings the Stanley Cup to mind. But there’s more to Boston than hockey and baked beans. I recently visited 711Washington St. in downtown Boston. Why? Because it’s the address of the world’s largest research center on nutrition and aging.

Three hundred scientists there are studying a disease that affects everyone, Sarcopenia.

No whiz kid in Latin, I assumed the name was a Latin word. My wife informed me it’s Greek, meaning “poverty of flesh.”

(It’s wise to marry a smart woman).

Today everyone fears cancer, heart attack or Alzheimer’s Disease as they age. But it’s also important to think about the poverty of flesh, a slow creeping fragility that robs people of their independence.

If you want to witness Sarcopenia, visit a nursing home. Many of the elderly in these facilities don’t have cancer, heart problems or Alzheimer’s Disease.

But they do have a poverty of flesh, the loss of muscle mass. So much so that they cannot get off the toilet or care for themselves in other ways.

Rachel Perez of Tuft’s University Human Nutrition Research Center writes in the Health and Nutrition Letter that Sarcopenia affects 15% of people older than age 65 and 50% of those over 80.

Sarcopenia begins in the late 30s and increases at the rate of one percent a year. By age 80 many people have lost from 30 to 50% of muscle.

Women are at particular risk since they start off life with one third less muscle mass than men. Since they also live longer there’s also more time to lose muscle strength.

There’s no way to stop Father Time. But Dr. Roger Fielding, Director of Tuft’s Nutrition, Exercise, Physiology and Sarcopenia Laboratory (NEPSL), reports researchers are gradually finding new ways for people to age more gracefully.

Fielding suggests that strength training increases muscle size and muscle strength. But it’s difficult to grow muscle as we age. And a major problem is the gradual accumulation of fat in aging muscle cells.

So what can be done to decrease the risk of ending life in a wheelchair? First, avoid excessive weight gain.

And don’t get caught in a vicious cycle of sloth. As we age there’s a tendency to shy away from tasks that cause discomfort. This sets the stage for sarcopenia.

So should you signup for weight-lifting classes? Early studies showed this did not increase muscle mass and strength in the elderly. The reason for the initial poor result was the fear that pushing older people too hard was unwise. But later, when larger weights were used, those between the ages of 60 to 72 doubled their leg strength in 12 weeks of training. In fact, some frail 90-year-olds tossed away their canes after eight weeks of exercise!

What happens to these muscles? Dr William Evans at the University of Arkansas says that high intensity weight lifting causes microscopic tears in the muscle.

The muscles then rebuild protein and the cells become stronger.

I’ve never done weight lifting as I believed walking was good enough. But according to Dr. Evans, brisk walking or jogging can’t compete with stress bearing exercises. Nevertheless, walking is still better than taking the car to the corner store.

A lack of protein may also play a role in developing sarcopenia. Researchers showed that older women who consumed low amounts of protein lost muscle mass in just eight weeks.

A 150-pound person needs 68 grams of protein daily. But studies show that one in three over age 60 fails to eat this amount. Three ounces of steak, chicken or fish contains 21 grams.

Tonight I’ll order a nine-ounce steak just to be sure. As well, I’ll enjoy five ounces of red wine that contain 0.3 grams of protein. But this meager amount is so depressing I’ll linger over a little more. This will provide time to wonder about a topic for next week’s column.

I don’t drink and drive. I always walk to my favourite steak restaurant.

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