What Are the Main Causes and Signs of Sarcopenia and Can You Treat and Reverse it?

Medically Reviewed on 10/24/2022

What is sarcopenia? 

Sarcopenia is a condition where you lose the strength and volume of your muscles. Causes of sarcopenia can be aging and other conditions and it is treated diet changes and progressive resistance training.
Sarcopenia is a condition where you lose the strength and volume of your muscles. Causes of sarcopenia can be aging and other conditions and it is treated diet changes and progressive resistance training.

Loss of muscle mass (muscle atrophy) is very common with age. Regular muscle atrophy only sees the actual size of the muscle fibers dwindle, but the amount of fibers remains the same.  Sarcopenia is a type of muscle atrophy with one key distinction: the size and amount of muscle fibers decrease.

Fortunately, research has shown that it’s possible to reverse some aspects of sarcopenia through certain types of exercise and by making improvements to your diet

Sarcopenia is a condition where you lose the strength and volume of your muscles. This condition usually happens over time and is more likely to affect people who don’t take care of their health. It can also develop as a secondary illness in people who suffer from other diseases like cancer

Sarcopenia can severely affect your quality of life and independence. People who have sarcopenia often become weak and need extra assistance and care. As the disease progresses and the muscles become weaker, damaging falls and broken bones are common. 

Older people are more likely to develop severe cases of sarcopenia, but it can also start developing in people in their 30s and 40s. 

Symptoms of sarcopenia

Sarcopenia affects a large percentage of people, and that percentage increases with age. Even so, many cases go undiagnosed, so it’s difficult to estimate how many people are affected. Some might simply attribute symptoms of sarcopenia to the aging process. 

It’s important to watch for warning signs of sarcopenia in yourself or your loved ones, though, so you can get a proper diagnosis and seek treatment. Some symptoms of sarcopenia include:

  • Difficulty performing everyday tasks 
  • Slow walking speed 
  • A feeling of weakness in the muscles
  • Loss of balance
  • Falls
  • Difficulty standing up from a seated position 

Causes of sarcopenia

There are two categories of sarcopenia: primary and secondary. One of the most common reasons people develop sarcopenia is getting older. It’s considered a primary case when aging is the apparent explanation. 

Secondary sarcopenia develops as a reaction to other factors. Poor nutrition and inactivity can cause secondary sarcopenia. Other factors that may cause this illness include: 

  • Cell changes or cell death with age
  • A primary illness that causes sarcopenia as a side effect 
  • Inflammation
  • Dysfunction in the connection between nerves and muscles 
  • Age-related changes to cell structure
  • Issues with blood flow, volume, and regulation 
  • Hormonal changes
  • Rheumatic disorders

We don’t know exactly how common sarcopenia is, but studies indicate that it affects roughly 5% to 13% of people aged 60 to 70 and 11% to 50% of people aged 80 and older. 

Diagnosing sarcopenia 

In order to properly treat sarcopenia, you must first be properly diagnosed by your healthcare provider. Diagnosing methods can vary between medical practices, but they’ll all be focusing on the same things: strength, muscle mass, and performance. 

A combination of diagnostic methods can be used to assess these factors. They include: 

  • Grip strength tests
  • Gait speed
  • Chair stand test
  • Balance tests
  • Medical questionnaires

Some doctors may want to perform imaging tests to look at the amount of lean muscle you have. Some of those tests might include: 

  • Bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA)
  • X-rays
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan 
  • Magnetic image resonance (MRI) scan

How to prevent sarcopenia 

Maintaining a healthy diet and active lifestyle is the best way to prevent sarcopenia and muscle deterioration. 

Be sure to eat the recommended amount of fruits, vegetables, protein, and whole grains to maintain your health. An active lifestyle and resistance training will also help prevent muscle loss over time. 

Schedule regular physicals with your doctor and request muscle mass monitoring if you suspect that you may have sarcopenia. 

Treating and reversing sarcopenia 

Methods of treating sarcopenia vary based on what’s causing the sarcopenia, but most cases can be treated and even reversed with a combination of changes in diet and implementation of progressive resistance training. 

Progressive resistance training will start very slowly and increase in intensity as the patient gets stronger. Training should be performed 2 to 3 times each week and should be in line with the instructions of a doctor or physical therapist. 

Resistance training can even help reverse some cases of sarcopenia. It can increase strength and muscle size, pausing muscle deterioration in some cases. It can also help lower blood pressure and improve your blood sugar regulation. 

Protein intake is another important factor to consider when treating and reversing sarcopenia. The recommended protein intake is roughly a third of a gram per pound of body weight. Increasing overall calorie consumption has also been shown to have positive effects on gaining strength. 

Depending on your overall health, your doctor or dietician might recommend some supplements or treatments that will help you to regain your muscle strength and stamina. These might include: 

  • Amino acids 
  • Estrogen
  • Testosterone 
  • Vitamin supplements 

Making these changes can substantially improve overall health and longevity. It can be key to maintaining independence and halting the advance of sarcopenia. 


Exercises for Seniors: Tips for Core, Balance, Stretching See Slideshow

Living with sarcopenia 

If you’ve been diagnosed with sarcopenia or suspect that you have it, it’s important to know there are remedies. Taking steps to increase your muscle strength and eat properly can keep you strong and help you maintain your independence. 

A big part of treatment and reversal of sarcopenia, though, is catching it before it damages your body too much. The younger you are when diagnosed, the better your chances of improving your overall health through treatment, diet, and progressive resistance training. 

Medically Reviewed on 10/24/2022

Aging in Motion: "What is Sarcopenia?"

CDC: "Prevalence of Reduced Muscle Strength in Older U.S. Adults: United States, 2011–2012."

Cleveland Clinic: "Sarcopenia."

Current Opinion in Rheumatology: "Sarcopenia in older adults."

Geriatrics: "Reversing sarcopenia: how weight training can build strength and vitality."

Journal of Cachexia, Sarcopenia and Muscle: "An overview of sarcopenia: facts and numbers on prevalence and clinical impact."

National Cancer Institute: "Sarcopenia."

Regulatory Focus: "Sarcopenia: Potential interventions for a newly recognized disease."