We have all heard about osteoporosis or weakening of bones as we age. Many of us have done bone density tests and are taking supplements to prevent or treat osteoporosis. But what is sarcopenia? Sarcopenia is a loss of muscle mass that occurs as we age. As we mature into adults, hormonal changes ensure optimal muscle mass by the age of 25. But this muscle doesn’t remain constant with us throughout life. For those who lead a sedentary lifestyle, muscle loss starts as early as at the age of 30. Typically an inactive person loses up to 5% of muscle mass per decade.
What happens when we lose muscle? First and foremost a weak muscle offers poor protection to its neighbouring joint. Joints need strong muscles to function properly and durably for many years. When muscles are weak, the joints become vulnerable to damage. This damage can happen in any joint, but typically it is seen in the knee joint, the neck and the lower back. Initially patients complain of only occasional pain. Painful joints are instinctively rested by the patient. The rest worsens sarcopenia. This in turn predisposes the joint to even more damage. Thus the pain sets up a vicious cycle. This cycle ends in osteoarthritis of the knee or spondylitis of the neck or back, which in its last stages requires surgical treatment.
Loss of muscle also results in a lower basal metabolic rate (BMR). In simple words, the body is unable to burn calories efficiently. Lower BMR combined with a modern high calorie diet leads to increase in body fat. Excess fat increases insulin resistance. The end result is central obesity or a pot belly with diabetes, coronary heart disease (heart attack) and hypertension (high blood pressure).
End stage sarcopenia which occurs in elderly patients results in frailty, loss of balance & frequent falls. Sarcopenia is thus responsible for not only musculo-skeletal problems like osteoarthritis and fractures but also life style illness' like diabetes.
Is sarcopenia preventable or treatable? The good news is that it is! We can slow down the loss of muscle that happens with age by making positive changes in our diet and lifestyle. If we work a muscle, it will respond by a tear - repair mechanism to become stronger and a stronger muscle means a reversal of sarcopenia. The best way to strengthen a muscle is by doing resistance training. This can be done by either lifting weights like dumbbells or by using our own body weight. Typical body weight exercises are squats, push ups and lunges. As sarcopenia affects all muscle groups, it is important to work out all muscle groups. We must exercise not only thigh and calf muscles but also chest, back, upper limb and abdominal muscles. Walking is not a good exercise for sarcopenia as it works out only leg muscles and it is not a resistance training exercise.
Diet is as important in the prevention of sarcopenia. For muscles to repair and become stronger they need protein as a raw material. Protein is essential in a healthy diet. We must ensure adequate protein intake. A normal adult requires 0•8 gm of protein per kilo of body weight per day. Meat, eggs and dairy products are rich sources of protein. Roasted, boiled or baked chicken or fish are the healthiest source of meat protein. Milk, cheese and yogurt are good dairy sources. Vegetarian sources of protein include beans, lentils, green peas, chickpeas, soy, spinach, asparagus and brocolli. Nuts like almonds and peanuts also contain protein. Fruits can also provide protein with the richest sources being guavas, berries and apricots. To be effective, a high protein diet must go hand in hand with a low carbohydrate, low sugar and low fat diet.
A lot of research is going on but there still is no medicine that can stop or reverse sarcopenia. Exercise and diet remain the key to prevention as well as cure. We must eat clean and exercise hard to remain healthy and keep illness at bay. We really have no choice!