Is Age-Related Muscle Loss Really Age-Related?

It seems like common sense: we get weaker as we get older. All we have to do is look at the world around us, at all the young, strong people and the frail elderly people. There’s even a word for it: sarcopenia, or the “age-related loss of muscle mass.”

Many people begin to lose some muscle mass after age 30, with a more rapid loss among older adults. After age 50, loss of muscle mass can range from 0.5 to 1% per year.

It’s a serious problem, and one of the leading causes of functional decline in older adults — often associated with other chronic diseases, increased insulin resistance, fatigue, and falls.

The causes of sarcopenia include a decline in physical activity, hormonal changes, chronic illness, and poor nutrition.

But here’s the thing: sarcopenia is not inevitable. It causes problems for 30% of people over the age of 60, and 50% of those over age 80. That’s a lot of people — but it’s also leaves a lot of people who remain functionally unaffected.

And it’s also reversible. You can restore lost strength. Studies going back 30 years have shown significant increases in muscle mass when older adults participate in regular strength and resistance training sessions. It doesn’t matter how old they are — even 90-year-olds saw significant increases in strength, muscle mass, and walking speed.

All this has led to a redefining of the word sarcopenia, at least among some European and international groups, to take away the age component. For them, sarcopenia is now considered to be “a decline in muscle function associated with a loss of muscle mass.”

Of course sarcopenia is still more likely to occur as we age, but this alternate definition allows for more focus on treatment (i.e. strength training to increase muscle mass) rather than resignation (retirement to a rocking chair, as if that’s all that old people can do).

Also, taking away the emphasis on age helps to push another point: why wait? Unless your doctor advises against it, there’s no time like today to begin building muscle. Even for active people, old or young, a dedicated strength training program is necessary to maintain, build, or rebuild muscle mass. Whether using free weights, machines, or resistance bands, all you need is a little guidance from a physical therapist or personal trainer, and it won’t take long before you’re feeling strong and functional again.