Sarcopenia: What Age-Related Muscle Loss Does to You (And How to Overcome It)

Getting older can feel as if it’s about all things new: new aches and pains, new medications, new conditions. While most seniors are aware of new symptoms relating to diseases like dementia, arthritis and diabetes, many don’t know much about sarcopenia, the medical term for naturally occurring, age-related muscle loss.

According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation, sarcopenia typically starts at about age 40, but the patients we see in physical therapy tend to be in their 60s. Sarcopenia falls under the umbrella of “clinical geriatric syndromes,” which refers to conditions that coincide with advancing age but do not have a single cause. It can correlate with a sedentary lifestyle, an unbalanced diet, and chronic inflammation.

How age-related muscle loss affects seniors

Studies show that low muscle mass contributes to mobility disorders, greater fall and fracture risks and loss of independence. Muscle loss can cause disability in order adults, making them more dependent on a significant other or leading to an earlier-than-expected move to an independent living facility.

The good news is that, with consistent physical exercise and therapy, muscle weakness and loss can be mitigated to improve the quality of life for older people. At Heather Lane Physical Therapy, we use a scientifically based algorithm developed by the European Working Group to catch sarcopenia in seniors.

Physical therapy approaches

During our initial evaluation, we take muscle mass measurements and observe grip strength, walking speed and other indications. Patients start by doing a walking or gait test of up to four miles at their usual speed. Then we measure the calf and arm. Last, we test the person’s maximum grip strength. Grip strength is especially predictive of sarcopenia. Periodically we repeat these tests to track a patient’s health and progress.

Prevent and beat sarcopenia

While physical therapists tailor the plan to prevent or overcome age-related muscle loss according to the individual’s specific limitations, strength training is typically part of the regimen.

“Strength training can mitigate many of the downfalls of aging, including sarcopenia,” says Dr. Patrick Donovan of Heather Lane PT. “But it must be prescribed properly to promote ‘active aging.’ The loss of muscle mass can be slowed and even reversed through strength and resistance exercise.”

Seniors can turn back the clock

Make sure you get the assessment before jumping into an exercise program, Donovan advises. “A thorough movement assessment, medication review and balance evaluation should precede any new exercise regimen,” he cautions, “especially if you’re an older adult with a variety of issues.”

Heather Lane Physical Therapy completes a comprehensive assessment for each new patient before creating a custom rehabilitation program focused on improving individual issues. Call the office at (720) 507-3962 or schedule your appointment online today.

Bahat, G., Tufan, A., Tufan, F., Kilic, C., Akpinar, T. S., Kose, M., … Cruz-Jentoft, A. J. (2016). Cut-off points to identify Sarcopenia according to European Working Group on Sarcopenia in Older People (EWGSOP) definition. Clinical Nutrition, 35(6), 1557–1563. doi: 10.1016/j.clnu.2016.02.002

Volpi, E., Nazemi, R., & Fujita, S. (2004). Muscle tissue changes with aging. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 7(4), 405–410. doi: 10.1097/01.mco.0000134362.76653.b2

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