Muscle loss has long been associated with the ideas of inactivity and ageing, and that over time it becomes inevitable. Loss of muscle mass and muscle weakening is known as sarcopenia. Dr Tamer Mahmud, expert consultant rheumatologist and Director at the London Osteoporosis Clinic, explains more.
What is sarcopenia?
Sarcopenia is a loss of both coordination and muscle mass, which can result in poor balance, difficulty walking, and finding daily activities become more complicated to perform. These signs which we relate to old age are often related to sarcopenia - it was long imagined that this process was natural and inevitable. Research is suggesting, however, that this is incorrect, and that muscle strength can be improved, and the development of sarcopenia can be controlled.
Then what causes sarcopenia?
Sometimes causes can be related to disease or environment, and are therefore out of the patient’s control. Sarcopenia is usually caused by three factors – protein deficiency, changes in hormone levels, and motor unit restructuring.
Motor units refer to the motor neurons and the fibres in muscle that they direct. Motor unit restructuring happens when motor neurons eventually die, and therefore cannot communicate commands from the brain. When motor neurons die, the muscle fibres corresponding deteriorate – this is called atrophy.
Proteins are important in muscle mass, as it is what the muscle is made of. Our body produces some protein, but the rest we need from outside sources, such as through eating fish, eggs, and dairy. Hormones are directly connected to protein production, and as hormone concentration declines (usually as we age), the body finds it more difficult to produce more protein for itself.
Are there any other complications?
Sarcopenia is associated with other health problems, such as rheumatoid arthritis (particularly in women), osteoporosis (bones becoming weaker), falls, fractures, mobility problems, and diabetes.
Ultimately sarcopenia often results in a loss of independence, because of decreased physical function. This can be extremely difficult for patients to cope with, and they may feel frustrated that they are unable to perform activities alone.
What are the symptoms of sarcopenia?
Generally, weakness and a reduction in stamina levels are symptoms that are noticeable as they affect physical activity. A loss in stamina and overall weakness can then lead to inactivity, which in turn causes further muscle shrinkage.
Can muscle loss be prevented?
In order to slow or reverse muscle loss, lifestyle changes are important. Having a sedentary lifestyle makes the chances of developing sarcopenia higher, so exercise and being active is recommended. Resistance exercise can help to improve muscle strength – even at a more advanced age.
As sarcopenia is connected to protein, a diet ensuring the correct amount is eaten is advisable. Lentils, black beans, eggs, cheese, fish, and chicken, are among protein-rich foods which can help maintain healthy muscle mass.
There are many factors that contribute to sarcopenia and its development, but in order to reduce the risk, a healthy lifestyle – as often recommended – is advised.
In those who already have signs of the condition, the advice is no different. Vitamin D or other supplements may be advised, as low vitamin D levels are associated with sarcopenia. Other recommended advice may be to limit alcohol consumption, and quit smoking, as both habits are connected to sarcopenia and its development.
If you are worried about sarcopenia and the loss of muscle associated with it, consult with a specialist, who can give you the advice you need. In order to prevent sarcopenia, as much as is possible, make sure you engage in physical activity, and overall, remember that your lifestyle choices have an effect on your muscles.