Date: February 1st, 2013
Typically, our muscles grow larger and stronger as we age. That is, until about the time we celebrate our 30th birthdays. That’s when most of us start down the other side of the hill and begin to gradually lose our muscle mass, strength, and function. While it’s usually not very noticeable in our 30s and 40s, the loss increases exponentially with age and tends to accelerate between the ages of 65 and 80.
This progressive loss of muscle mass is called sarcopenia, and it’s found to play a major role in the increased frailty, disability, and functional impairment that too often come with aging. While sarcopenia is a condition that is not uncommon with age, we don’t have to just sit back and accept it. There are things we can do to slow its progress, and current research promises to make that trip over-the-hill less traumatic.
Losing Our Strength and Function with Age
Sarcopenia is behind a lot of the things we tend to think of as a part of getting older—things we “just have to accept” like loss of strength, problems with getting around, frailty, weak bones, and even middle-age weight gain. And it’s not uncommon. Nearly half of the elderly population in the U.S. has sarcopenia. This means that around 18 million people are left vulnerable to the consequences of the condition.
Unfortunately, those consequences aren’t minor. Loss of muscle mass can lead to falls, and in people with already weakened bones, those falls can lead to broken bones. Fractures, frailty, and decreased mobility can all lead to declines in activity and independence, hospitalization, institutionalization, and even death.
The risk of falls and broken bones is dramatically increased from sarcopenia and ½ of all accidental deaths in people age 65 and older are related to falls. For those that fall and survive, a large number are not able to continue living independently in the community.
It’s not surprising then that sarcopenia often leads to a diminished quality of life that leaves individuals unable to perform simple tasks of daily living. This puts them at dramatically higher risk of disability and the need for assisted living, retirement homes, and long-term care. In 2000, 1.5 million Americans were institutionalized—33% of them were admitted because they weren’t able to perform activities of daily living due to their reduced mobility.
On top of all this, sarcopenia can also put people at increased risk for other diseases of aging like type II diabetes.
Lost Independence in An Aging Nation
Sarcopenia is not just a problem for the individual, or for the family members that are providing care or watching their loved one decline. It’s also a huge problem for our healthcare system and economy.
The direct healthcare costs of sarcopenia are around $18 billion a year. The true cost to our nation is likely in the hundreds of billions of dollars since the direct costs don’t factor in things like the cost of lost independence, lost productivity, unpaid family caregiving, and the expenses of the diseases that sarcopenia can cause.
Now that Baby Boomers have started to turn 65 and enter Medicare’s rolls at a rate of 10,000 a day, it’s clear that the burden of sarcopenia on our nation is only going to increase. Thankfully, there are already known ways to combat sarcopenia, and research in this area is on the rise.
Putting the Brakes On
The best treatment for sarcopenia is exercise. It’s true that people who stay physically active throughout their lives can experience sarcopenia, but we also know that people who are inactive can lose as much as 3% to 5% of their muscle mass every decade after the age of 30. This makes it particularly important to exercise regularly, and exercises that focus on increasing muscle strength and endurance are the best at preventing and treating sarcopenia.
Strength exercises involve lifting or pushing weight and are important because even small changes in your muscle strength can make a significant difference in doing things like carrying groceries, getting up from a chair, and picking up your grandkids. They can also help improve balance and reduce the risk of falls.
Endurance exercises involve activities that increase your breathing and heart rate and that require your muscles to perform over a period of time. Building up your endurance will make it easier to do things like mow the lawn, climb the stairs, and go for walks.
It’s important to consult with your physician before you start a new exercise program to make sure it’s right for you and won’t likely result in injury. Good strength exercises include lifting weights and using resistance bands or household items to challenge your muscles. Good endurance exercises include things like dancing, swimming, and even brisk walking. The National Institute on Aging’s Go4Life campaign offers some great tips and suggestions on exercising including ideas on how you can turn things you can find around the house—like tennis balls and chairs, and daily activities—even household chores, into your exercise for the day.
Finding More Answers
A significant body of research in recent years suggests that in addition to exercise, drug interventions have the potential to slow the declines associated with sarcopenia and may even be able to improve physical function.
Unfortunately, there are major barriers to research and development of these potential interventions. Currently, scientists are unable to agree on clinical definitions of sarcopenia that would allow health care professionals to better detect, diagnose, and treat the condition. There is also a lack of action at the drug-approval level which slows research, innovation, and the development of new therapies.
The Aging in Motion Coalition consists of more than 30 organizations that are dedicated to removing these barriers and ensuring that new drugs are developed and made available for adults suffering from sarcopenia. Clearly, preserving the independence and physical function of our aging population not only preserves their quality of life, but also promises to save our nation billions of dollars in healthcare costs. The AIM Coalition recognizes that therapies and interventions that can halt or reverse the effects of sarcopenia are a realistic possibility and hold great promise.