From the time you are born to around the time you turn 30, your muscles grow larger and stronger. But at some point in your 30s, you start to lose muscle mass and function. The cause is age-related sarcopenia or sarcopenia with aging.
Physically inactive people can lose as much as 3% to 5% of their muscle mass each decade after age 30. Even if you are active, you’ll still have some muscle loss.
There’s no test or specific level of muscle mass that will diagnose sarcopenia. Any loss of muscle matters because it lessens strength and mobility.
Sarcopenia typically happens faster around age 75. But it may also speed up as early as 65 or as late as 80. It’s a factor in frailty and the likelihood of falls and fractures in older adults.
Symptoms and Causes of Sarcopenia
Although sarcopenia is seen mostly in people who are inactive, the fact that it also occurs in people who stay physically active suggests there are other factors in its development. Researchers believe these include:
- Reduction in nerve cells responsible for sending signals from the brain to the muscles to start movement
- Lower concentrations of some hormones, including growth hormone, testosterone, and insulin-like growth factor
- A decrease in the ability to turn protein into energy
- Not getting enough calories or protein each day to sustain muscle mass
Treatments for Sarcopenia
Resistance training can help your neuromuscular system, hormones. It also can improve an older adult's ability to convert protein to energy in as little as two weeks.
The proper number, intensity, and frequency of resistance exercise is important for getting the most benefit with the least risk of injury. You should work with an experienced physical therapist or trainer to develop an exercise plan.
Although drug therapy is not the preferred treatment for sarcopenia, a few medications are under investigation. They include:
- Urocortin II. This has been shown to stimulate the release of a hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) from your pituitary gland. Given through an IV, this can prevent muscle atrophy that can happen when you’re in a cast or taking certain medicines. Its use for building muscle mass in humans has not been studied and isn't recommended.
- Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). When a woman's production of hormones goes down at menopause, HRT can increase lean body mass, reduce abdominal fat in the short-term, and prevent bone loss. However, there has been controversy around the use of HRT due to increased risk of certain cancers and other serious health problems.
Other treatments under investigation for sarcopenia include:
- Testosterone supplements
- Growth hormone supplements
- Medication for treatment of metabolic syndrome (including, insulin-resistance, obesity, and hypertension).
If these prove useful, you’ll use them with resistance exercise, not instead of it.