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What is Sarcopenia?

It’s not uncommon to feel less in shape as we age. We have less energy, we’re less flexible, and less agile. Perhaps the most noticeable change is the loss of strength. Everything just feels heavy these days. No matter what you do, you can’t seem to fully reclaim the fitness you had when you were in your twenties. If this sounds like you, there’s a chance you’re dealing with what’s called age-related sarcopenia. The name may sound scary, but it’s quite common for anyone. Today, we’ll be looking at what sarcopenia is exactly, how you can spot it, and what you can do to treat, slow, or even prevent it.

What is Sarcopenia?

Sarcopenia is one of the four main causes of muscle loss, and it’s extremely common, affecting between five and 13 percent of people aged 60 to 70 and as many as 50 percent of people 80 and above. While no firm scientific consensus exists on the diagnosis of sarcopenia, it generally is agreed that it relates to both the loss of muscle mass and the loss of muscular function and strength. One such overview noted that a clinical diagnosis of sarcopenia can be reached when a senior’s muscle mass falls two standard deviations below the average of a younger control comparison and gait speed falls to a specific level. In plain English, once your muscle size and speed fall noticeably, your doctor may be able to diagnose you with sarcopenia.

Numerous studies have tied sarcopenia to everything from an increased risk of falling and injury to a loss of functional independence.

Sarcopenia was first named in 1988 after decades of studies found a need to identify and define the phenomenon of age-related muscular decline so that it could be taken seriously and studied. The name comes from the Greek sarx (flesh) and penia (loss). This significance has been reflected in numerous studies that have tied sarcopenia to everything from an increased risk of falling and injury to a loss of functional independence. The condition has even been linked to chronic conditions like diabetes, obesity, and osteoporosis. It can even lead to poor quality of life, disability, and death through injuries and related conditions.

Diagnosis of Sarcopenia

With the risks and consequences of sarcopenia being so high, spotting it becomes all the more important. Looking at our description of the condition, though, it’s hard to tell what it is beyond just muscle weakness and loss of fitness. And truly, that is how you can identify if you have sarcopenia in some form. If there has been a noticeable drop in your physical strength and endurance, you may want to talk to your doctor. This doesn’t simply refer to your ability to run a mile, but can relate to everyday things, like going up stairs or taking in the groceries.

Your doctor will analyze the quality and quantity of your muscle mass to confirm a sarcopenia diagnosis.

There are several techniques that can be used to diagnose sarcopenia. The most common and affordable of these is bioelectrical impedance analysis, which measures body fat to lean muscle. Your doctor will analyze the quality and quantity of your muscle mass to confirm a sarcopenia diagnosis.

Causes of Sarcopenia

We’ve talked about the risks of sarcopenia, but there’s another reason why it can be important to get a firm diagnosis of it. The other three main causes of muscular decline are dehydration, anorexia, and cachexia. While sarcopenia is related to the aging process, it’s that final one that you’ll really want to watch out for. Cachexia is a wasting disorder that can cause you to lose weight from fat and muscle loss, even if you’re eating. Not only is this a concern for muscle and extreme weight loss reasons, cachexia can be the result of some really serious diseases. Muscular atrophy is also a symptom of numerous serious conditions.

Are There Any Treatment or Prevention Options?

If you are diagnosed or worry you may develop sarcopenia at some point in your life, what steps can you take? Well, it depends on where you are. If you haven’t been diagnosed yet, but worry that it may develop at some point, prevention is key. If you’ve already been diagnosed, you have treatment options available to you.

Prevention

The best way to prevent — or at least slow — the onset of sarcopenia is by living a healthy lifestyle and preserving your current muscle mass. Eating plenty of protein and getting enough exercise can help you maintain muscle. The importance of high-quality proteins that are lean in fat has been noted as especially effective.

Whether you are just starting to get into a fitness routine or are stuck at home, you can work on your fitness to preserve your muscle mass and at least slow the onset of sarcopenia.

A sedentary lifestyle is perhaps the strongest trigger for sarcopenia, where the less you use your muscles, the more they’ll decrease in mass and strength. Even two to three weeks is enough to see a (small) decrease in muscle mass. Now compound that to months or years. For this reason, it’s important to stay active and find an exercise routine that promotes muscular strength. Whether you are just starting to work on your fitness or are stuck at home, you can make strides to preserve your muscle mass and at least slow the onset of sarcopenia.

Treatment

If you have been diagnosed with sarcopenia, there are ways you can treat your condition, and possibly even reverse it to a degree. That may seem like a dream, but weight training has been shown to be able to reverse the consequences of sarcopenia, making it one of the safest and least expensive methods of treatment. In fact, weight training has been shown to increase the strength and power in even the oldest subjects studied, who actually had the greatest benefit from strength training — though all who participated saw the benefits.

Improving your fitness is also important, with aerobic exercise possibly helpful in treating sarcopenia, even if it’s only walking.

It doesn’t need to be all strength and resistance training, though. Improving your fitness is also important. Aerobic exercise may help treat sarcopenia, even if it’s only walking. There is currently no pharmaceutical treatment for sarcopenia, though some are working in development, with the Mayo Clinic casting a keen eye on myostatin.

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Sarcopenia is something we’ve always associated with aging, but most people don’t know that it’s even a named condition. To a lot of people, it’s just a part of getting old. But, with age-related muscular weakness adding to the health risks as we get older, the study of prevention and treatment of it remains important. At the very least, it showcases the importance of sustained exercise, even into old age, and eating a healthy, balanced diet.