BY Dr. Sanjiva Wijesinha

Recently, I learned a new word from a physiologist colleague – ‘Sarcopenia’ is derived from the Greek words sarx (meaning flesh) and penia (loss). The term was coined in the 1990s by Professor Irwin Rosenberg of Tufts University School of Medicine in the US to describe the loss of muscle mass and strength that occurs with advancing age.

From around the age of 50, the large muscles of the body (called skeletal muscles) begin to decline in size and power – averaging a five percent loss of muscle mass for every decade from thereon.

As people age, this loss of muscle mass and strength brings on an impaired state of health that can have adverse consequences. These include progressive frailty with an increased risk of falls and fractures, disorders in mobility, difficulty in performing the usual activities of daily living, loss of independence and early death.

Some people shrink faster than others as they age and several factors contribute to this shrinkage – a sedentary lifestyle, chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease, a less than optimal diet, reduced mobility and certain medicines taken over the long term.

Significantly, whether the decline of muscle mass and strength becomes extensive enough to affect one’s health is determined by the initial amount of muscle mass and rate at which it declines. In addition to the obvious function of moving bones and joints, skeletal muscles (the large red or striped muscles) also play an important role in our metabolism – regulating blood sugar levels, for example.

Professor of Physiology at the University of Nottingham Philip Atherton says: “It is important to ensure sufficient habitual activity since immobility, and even reducing the number of steps we walk each day, can cause adverse metabolic changes and muscle loss.”

He recommends consuming small quantities of protein regularly – say three to four times a day – together with bouts of physical activity and resistance exercises, such as lifting weights for maintaining muscle mass and strength. Dietary proteins rich in the essential amino acid leucine (found in soy and other beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, fish, seafood, cheese, chicken, beef and pork) appear to be very effective in maximising the beneficial effects of exercise in older folk.

So apart from a nutritious diet, what can you do to prevent shrinking and losing muscle power as you grow older?

You could be a regular gym goer but if you aren’t keen on pumping iron with people young enough to be your children, opt for a muscle building programme at home. Simple physical exercise like walking briskly for between 30 minutes and an hour regularly is excellent. If you prefer, you may swim or cycle – the aim is to get your muscles moving.

To improve muscle strength, undertake resistive exercises that require you to push or pull against resistance. While utilising barbells, dumbbells and expensive gym machines is one way of doing this, simple resistive exercises like pushups, squats and ‘grocery curls’ (where you use your forearms to repeatedly lift two shopping bags full of groceries – just as one would lift dumbbells in a gym!) can deliver similar benefits.

The key is to save your muscle power and minimise their deterioration as you age!