You probably know all about osteoporosis, the gradual, age-related loss of bone. What you may not know: There also is an age-related loss of muscle mass, strength and function—a condition called sarcopenia. And it is a problem for all of us as we age.
Sarcopenia generally starts at age 40. By the time you’re 50, you’re losing 1% to 2% of your muscle mass every year. And as you lose muscle, you lose strength. Example: Starting in your 40s, leg strength typically drops by 10% to 15% per decade until you’re 70, after which it declines by 25% to 40% per decade.
But you don’t have to become physically debilitated to suffer the devastating effects of muscle loss. When you have less muscle, you have more fat—and fat cells produce inflammatory compounds that drive many deadly chronic diseases, such as heart disease and cancer.
The good news: Starting today, there are many actions you can take to slow, stop and even reverse sarcopenia…
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
When sarcopenia is at its worst—what some experts call pathological sarcopenia—you become weak, walk slowly, fall easily, are less likely to recover from an illness and are more likely to die from any cause. That degree of sarcopenia afflicts 14% of people ages 65 to 75 and 45% of those 85 and older.
Sarcopenia is linked to a 77% increased risk for cardiovascular disease. It’s also linked to higher death rates in breast cancer survivors and older people with lymphoma.
With less muscle, you burn less glucose (blood sugar), so it becomes harder to prevent, control or reverse type 2 diabetes, a disease of chronically high blood sugar that can plague your life with complications such as vision loss, nerve pain and kidney failure. Diabetes also doubles your risk for heart attack, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.
Studies also link sarcopenia to triple the risk for osteoporosis, a fourfold increase in postoperative infections and severe menopausal symptoms.
The right diet and supplements can fight muscle loss. (Talk to your doctor before taking any of these supplements, because they could interact with medication or affect a chronic condition, such as kidney disease.)
- Eat protein-rich food daily. Increasing the amount of protein in your diet not only can help stop the breakdown of muscle, but it also helps build new muscle.
Scientific evidence: In a three-year study, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, older people who ate the most protein lost 40% less muscle compared with people who ate the least.
My advice: Every day, eat at least four ounces of protein-rich food, such as lean beef, fish, chicken or turkey. A four-ounce serving is about the size of a deck of cards.
Helpful: Whey protein, from milk, is rich in branched-chain amino acids. These three amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine) comprise 35% of muscle protein and are uniquely effective in building muscle. Look for a protein powder derived from whey protein, and use at least one scoop daily in a smoothie or shake. You also can get some of these amino acids by eating Greek yogurt, nuts, seeds, cheese and hard-boiled eggs.
- Take vitamin D. Vitamin D is widely known to stop bone loss, but it also stops muscle loss.
Scientific evidence: A study published in Journal of Internal Medicine linked low blood levels of vitamin D to a fourfold increase in the risk for frailty, a problem of old age that includes pathological sarcopenia.
Vitamin D works to protect muscle by decreasing chronic, low-grade inflammation, which contributes to the breakdown and loss of muscle protein.
Unfortunately, an estimated nine out of 10 Americans have suboptimal blood levels of vitamin D, below 30 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml). A simple blood test can reveal your vitamin D level. Research shows that people with a blood level of 55 ng/ml or higher of vitamin D have 50% less heart disease and cancer than people with a blood level of 20 ng/ml or below. It also reduces the risk of falling by 19%.
My advice: I recommend the same 55 ng/ml level to control muscle loss. To achieve that level, most people need to take a daily vitamin D supplement that supplies 3,000 international units (IU) to 5,000 IU.
- Take fish oil. Like vitamin D, fish oil works to protect muscle by reducing the chronic inflammation that damages muscle cells.
Scientific evidence: In a study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, women who participated in strength-training and also took fish oil had much stronger muscles after three months than women who did only strength-training.
My advice: To protect and build muscle, I recommend a supplement containing 1,000 milligrams (mg) of omega-3 fatty acids, with 400 mg of EPA and 300 mg of DHA. Take it twice daily.
- Consider creatine. Creatine is an amino acid–like compound found mostly in red meat, pork and fish, such as salmon, tuna and herring. More than 70 clinical studies show that regularly taking a creatine supplement can help build muscle and increase strength.
However: The nutrient works to build muscle only if you are exercising—without that regular challenge to the muscles, supplemental creatine has no effect.
My advice: If you’re exercising regularly, take three grams of creatine daily.
Regular exercise is one of the best ways to stop or reverse muscle loss. You need both aerobic exercise and resistance exercise (which stresses the muscles, causing them to get stronger). My advice…
- For aerobics, use your lower and upper body. Walking is a good exercise, but it builds only lower-body strength. Also include aerobic exercise that uses the lower and upper body, such as tennis, ballroom dancing or working out on an elliptical machine. Try to participate in 30 to 60 minutes of aerobic exercise five or more days a week.
- For resistance training, work all your muscles. I recommend resistance exercise three times a week, concentrating on the different muscle groups at each session—chest and triceps…back and biceps…and legs and shoulders. If you don’t like weight-lifting, try another form of resistance exercise, such as resistance bands.