Sarcopenia: A needless path to a wheelchair

What’s the worst health problem that can happen to you? I’m sure many readers would say cancer, stroke or Alzheimer’s Disease. I agree these are all frightful diseases. But there’s another one that occurs gradually as we age. It’s called Sarcopenia (the loss of muscle mass), and this creeping frailty forces many elderly into nursing homes because their muscles are so weak they can no longer get off the toilet.

A recent report from Tufts University in Boston says, sarcopenia robs people of their independence and often leads to the risk of falls, resulting in serious injury. Visit any nursing home and you’ll see multiple examples of sarcopenia.

Studies show that sarcopenia begins around age 45 and increases at the rate of 1% a year. That means that by age 65, sedentary people have lost half of their muscle mass. And you cannot lose muscle mass without losing muscle strength.

Women are at greater risk than men as they start out in life with one-third less muscle mass than men. Moreover, since they live longer there’s longer duration of muscle loss.

So what can you do at an early age to prevent ending your life in a wheelchair? As the elderly age they tend to shy away from strenuous tasks that cause discomfort. This sets the stage for sarcopenia.

First, don’t neglect sufficient protein. Dr. Paul Jacques, director of Tufts Nutritional Program says, “It’s estimated that 20 per cent of people between the ages of 51 to 70 have inadequate protein intake.”

But the Tufts report also states that most North Americans get plenty of protein, but they obtain it the wrong way. Cheeseburgers and fried chicken provide protein, but they also provide too much saturated fat and calories. Researchers stress another important point. You should not only get adequate protein at dinner, but also at other meals.

So what’s the appropriate protein math to prevent sarcopenia?

The proposed average is 40 to 70 grams a day depending on body weight (0.8 grams of protein per 2.2 lbs). So a 125 lb. woman would require 46 grams and a 175 lb. man 64 grams. In addition, the amount depends on daily activity.

What about exercise? It’s been known for decades that weight lifting and working on resistance machines increases muscle mass and strength in young people. But when this approach was tried on older people their muscles did not get larger.

The reason for these poor results was the initial fear that to push older people too hard is unwise. I say “amen” to that, because I’ve seen cases of snapped tendons due to the loading of excessive weights.

But there is a positive side if weightlifting is done with caution and not pushed to the limit. When researchers increased weights gradually for those between 60 to 72 years it doubled their strength in 12 weeks of training. Some frail 90-year-olds tossed their canes away in eight weeks of graduated exercise.

There are other benefits to preserving muscle mass. During illness the body withdraws protein from muscles to aid in the healing process and produces antibodies to fight infection. When sarcopenia is present, there’s less ammunition to fight illness.

Dr. William Evans, at the University of Arkansas, cites a study in Finland in which men in their late 60s who had lifted weights for years, had muscle mass similar to non-athletes in their 20s. Joggers however, are not protected from sarcopenia as the stress produced by this sport can’t compete with lifting weights.

The message here is that to maintain muscle mass you require an adequate dietary intake of protein along with exercise, preferably using weights. This is not news I like to hear. I’ve enjoyed sports, but not lifting weights.

But reluctantly, I keep a pair of weights close to my computer and intermittently use them. I also enjoy replenishing my protein with a six ounce steak (63 grams) and baked potato with skin (5 gm). And to ease my anxiety that I may be protein deficient, I enjoy five ounces of red wine (0.3 grams of protein).

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