Oh no! Inevitable Loss of Muscle (Sarcopenia) as We Age?

Sarcopenia - Muscle Loss

Is this another case of “it’s always something” to worry about?  Can we not have some good news in these troubled times? 

In an attempt to stop anyone going into anxiety and depression over this, let’s say this…

  1. It does happen, but it is good to be informed about how it happens, so that there are no surprises.
  2. Once you know, you can do something about it.
  3. Notice that you CAN do something about it.  Just like many things about your health. 


Just so you know, the scientific term for loss of muscle mass is “sarcopenia.”  This makes it sound like a disease, when actually it is a normal process of aging.  You may be hearing more about sarcopenia these days  Why?  Because more people are adopting a sedentary lifestyle, and people are living longer. 

You may have also heard that we lose muscle to the tune of 1% per decade after the age of 30.  Actually, that is just an average, and the truth varies greatly.  For one thing, there tends to be an acceleration around age 50 and again around age 80.  For another, people are widely varied in their lifestyles, activities, and general health. 

Here’s what happens.

  • As we get older, some of the neurons that go to our muscles start to shrink or die off. 
  • This means that your muscles can’t fire up like they used to, AND they get a bit worse at utilizing the energy we give them.
  • As we age, our muscle-building hormones gradually decrease, so our ability to use protein to build muscle decreases. 
  • Our bodies also have a more difficult time utilizing protein that we consume as we get older. 
  • Then there is the fact that as we get older, we tend to get less active, have less energy, and have more aches and pains. 
  • Less activity causes us to lose muscle.  It can become a vicious cycle. 

When we lose muscle, our muscles don’t work together as well, which can lead to injury, falls, loss of coordination, and spending more energy to get things done. 

Oof!  Bam!  Ouch!  I am sure you know what I am talking about (if you are getting on a bit). 

The Cures


As usual, there have been attempts to stop this inevitable march with supplements or pharmaceuticals.  So far, there has not been much success with these items, which may also come with side effects (testosterone, growth hormone).  But there is ONE thing that has been shown to help that can just be ingested.  It’s good quality protein.

As I said, older folks tend to have more difficulty utilizing protein in the diet.  The recommendation is to ingest 1.5 g/kg of body weight instead of the .8 g/kg recommended for younger, moderately active people.  For a 160-pound person, that would be 109 grams of protein daily.  In addition, older adults have difficulty processing more than 30g of protein at one sitting.  So, the wisdom is to spread your intake throughout the day, like at each meal.  This is a good idea anyway. 

The protein that we eat does not have to be complete every time.  Complete means it has all 9 of the essential amino acids that our bodies need because they can’t make them.  There are 11 non-essential amino acids because our bodies know how to make them.  You could get a strong argument from a vegetarian that you can get all the protein you need by combining different plant protein sources to get what we need.  Most plants contain some protein, but you have to be savvy in your combinations to get all the amino acids you need. 

But, I digress.  The main message here is NOT “eat more meat!”  The American Heart Association recommends that only 5% – 6% of our daily calories should be from saturated fat.  Most of us know that meat is famous for containing saturated fat, as are many processed foods.  Instead, The AHA recommends that you get your protein from fish, poultry, low-fat dairy, whole grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables. 

One study in older adults found that, in spite of following a strength training program, no strength gains were made unless there was also an increase in consumption of protein.  So, I rest my protein case for now. 

Strength Training

Strength training is still #1 when it comes to combatting the loss of muscle mass as we get older.  How much strength training you might ask?  The truth is that the ability to maintain muscle mass is all over the map.  BUT (as mentioned before) a great percentage of muscle loss is from inactivity, regardless of age.

In general, it is a good idea to aim for the American College of Sports Medicine’s recommendations of training the body’s major muscles (legs, hips, chest, back, abdomen, shoulders, and arms) 2-3 times a week.  You only really need to do one set of 8-10 repetitions with a challenging weight to get the job done.  More sets are good, but does not give you as much benefit as the first set.

If you are older (let’s say over 50) and out of shape, it’s a good idea to go with 12-15 repetitions with a lower weight.  You can start with 1-2 times a week.  Either way, the idea is to promote better FUNCTION, not win any body building contests. 

Along those lines, it is important to note that you will not be able to maintain all your muscle as you get older.  Alas, the aging process does not allow that.  BUT you can maintain a great deal of it, stay functional and active, have better balance, be able to combat the onset of chronic diseases, be more energetic, and stay independent longer.  Sounds pretty good, right? 

Never give up,

© 2020 Kristen Carter, MS. All rights reserved.


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