What is sarcopenia?
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.
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:
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
- 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.
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:
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
- 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.
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.
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."
Top Main Causes Signs Sarcopenia Treat Reverse It Related Articles
Healthy Aging: Causes of Muscle WeaknessFrom aging to illness, many things can cause your muscles to get weaker. Learn about the causes and what you can do to make it better.
Exercises for Seniors: Tips for Core, Balance, StretchingExercise for seniors is important for healthy and successful aging. Learn about core strengthening, balance exercises, and stretching and relaxation routines. See what happens to our bodies as we age, how to start exercising, and the benefits of exercising as a senior.
Off-Balance Core MovesWant a toned stomach or a winning tennis game? WebMD's pictures show 11 off-balance core exercises to help get you there.
Senior Health: Ways to Stay Healthy in RetirementYou can do some things to make your golden years truly golden. Here are a few ideas to help you prepare for -- and have -- a healthy retirement.