You see how people slow down as they get older. They walk cautiously. They struggle to get up from a chair. They look at a flight of stairs with trepidation. The problem? In many cases, they’ve lost muscle mass. So, they simply aren’t as strong as they used to be.
Losing muscle mass as you age—called sarcopenia—is a common condition. Kristina Balangue, MD, a geriatrician at Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix, said it’s not just a problem for the geriatric age group. Even people in their 50s can lose muscle mass. And it’s not just losing strength that’s a problem. People who lose muscle mass are at risk of having a reduced quality of life and a shorter life expectancy.
Why you lose muscle mass as you age
It’s common knowledge that your muscles weaken as you get older. But why? “It’s like a cauldron of soup with everything contributing to it,” Dr. Balangue said.
These factors can combine to reduce your muscle mass:
- The natural process of how cells die and regenerate changes
- Inflammatory factors change
- You may gain fatty tissue more than muscle mass
- Chronic diseases can play a role
- You’re more likely to decrease your activity level as you get older
How you can maintain your muscle mass as you age
Dr. Balangue’s top tip for staying strong as you age? “Keep yourself healthy.” Here’s what she recommends:
- Get some exercise. The goal is to work up to 30 to 45 minutes a day for five days a week. “That can be daunting to somebody who hasn’t done anything before. But every bit helps,” Dr. Balangue said. “Just walk around the house—start somewhere. You’ll start feeling better and improving your quality of life with a small change in activity.”
- Evaluate your diet. Talk to your doctor or a nutritionist about what you’re eating. A lot of people choose a low-calorie, low-protein diet if they’re trying to lose weight. But you need to have enough protein and fuel to be able to build muscle.
- Tackle health problems tied to what you eat. When you discuss your diet, talk about any issues that make good nutrition challenging for you. Dr. Balangue pointed out that as you age you may lose your sense of taste, be less thirsty, not feel like eating much or have trouble swallowing. Your doctor or nutritionist can help you find foods that work within your limitations.
- Control any diseases. If you have chronic diseases like diabetes, make sure you have a solid treatment plan that keeps them under optimum control.
Sometimes, losing muscle can be a sign of a more serious problem
When you lose muscle mass, you may also lose weight. If you lose weight when you’re not trying to, or you lose too much too quickly, talk to your doctor. “It’s not always the number of pounds you lose. Sometimes, it’s the degree or the speed,” Dr. Balangue said.
If you are concerned about unexplained weight loss, it’s helpful to share specifics with your doctor. For example, maybe you lost six pounds in two weeks. Or maybe you dropped two dress sizes in a month. That gives your doctor more information than simply reporting that you’re losing weight. Then, your doctor can ask about other symptoms and evaluate whether your weight loss could be a sign of a health problem.
Sometimes you might need the help of a specialist like a geriatrician who specializes in “whole-body” care. Geriatricians are specially trained for management of conditions like frailty, weight loss, poor appetite, slowing down and poor endurance in older adults.
The bottom line
It’s common to lose muscle mass as you get older. But by exercising, choosing the right foods, solving nutrition challenges and controlling your diseases, you can stave off the loss and stay strong. Dr. Balangue encourages you to take a small step toward a stronger future. “The inspiration to do it is more than half the battle won,” she said.
To learn more about staying strong as you get older, read: