The name has always sounded to me like one of those obscure and frightening diseases that occasionally comes raging out of a deep dark jungle and causes a near apocalyptic epidemic. Sorry… I have an active imagination.
Thankfully, it’s not that. But, it is a serious health condition that affects the quality of life of as many as 18 million Americans. If you’re over that age of 40 and not regularly doing strengthening exercise, you are likely in the early stages of this condition but may not recognize that for several years to come.
So what is it?
Sarcopenia is the loss of muscle mass and strength, and the associated loss of physical function, most often attributed to the aging process.
The term is derived from Greek with the literal translation being the poverty (penia) of flesh (sarx).
It is often associated with age-related frailty. We can all conjure the mental picture of an very frail elderly person who has lost most of their muscle mass. That’s the most recognizable manifestation of sarcopenia.
Interestingly, sarcopenia is just as prevalent in folks who are overweight. They term this condition sarcopenic obesity. In this circumstance, fat has deeply infiltrated the muscle tissue. Think of a very marbled steak. From the outside, this person might look anything but emaciated and “wasting away”. But, a cross sectional image of their major muscle groups, such as the thigh, would depict substantial quantities of fat woven through ever decreasing areas of skeletal muscle.
Ever heard the term “skinny fat”? Yep, that’s sarcopenia and it’s not confined to just the elderly.
So, what might be the causes of sarcopenia? There are several…
Physiological – mitochondria, the power plants of our cells, tend to have diminished function and reproduce less frequently (biogenesis) as
we age, which may accelerate muscular atrophy. Most of this diminished cellular function results from disuse.
Neuromuscular – the transmission of nerve signals at the junctions of our nerve endings deactivate creating dormant neural pathways. Much of
this diminished neuromuscular function also results from disuse and inadequate nutrition.
Hormonal – there’s a decrease in the production of helpful regenerative growth-inducing (anabolic) hormones such as testosterone, HGH (human
growth hormone), and IGF (insulin-like growth factor). Nutrition can definitely play a part in this too.
Inflammatory – chronic systemic inflammation seems to exacerbate the loss of muscle. This is particularly true for people who suffer from
conditions like Lupus or Rheumatoid Arthritis.
Biological – we may produce fewer stem cells as we age and they migrate (motility) more slowly to where they’re needed in older adults. They
are critical to muscular regeneration.
While all the above, and probably more, contribute to sarcopenia, there is consensus amongst thought leaders that the two primary causes pertain to lifestyle.
They are strengthening exercise, or the lack thereof, and inadequate nutrition.
Think for a moment about our modern sedentary lifestyle. On any given day, how far do we walk? How often do we even climb stairs? Or carry anything relatively heavy for even small distances? How many hours do we spend seated watching TV’s or working in front of the computer?
Let’s think about a common enough experience, like moving through a modern airport. We might walk a short distance from our car to a tram or shuttle. We’ll stand on conveyor belts to get from one place to another. We’ll take escalators and elevators when we need to go up or down levels. We won’t even need to open or close doors as most of those are powered and automatic. We probably won’t carry our suitcases anymore since we smartened up and put little wheels on them. We are hardly required to do much more than walk a few short distances.
Unless we intentionally choose to strengthen our bodies through programmed exercise, our modern daily lifestyle does not involve much beneficial strength inducing movement.
One thing is consistent in every scientific discussion about sarcopenia…
Lack of strengthening exercise and inadequate nutrition are the most likely culprits.
And go figure….strength training, combined with better nutrition is universally cited as the most effective remedy for sarcopenia.
I don’t know about you, but I find that especially encouraging. Why??? Because those are both things that we have complete control over. Unless you are a quadriplegic or imprisoned (with no choice in what you eat) we ALL have the ability to avoid and even reverse sarcopenia.
But, you know what… we don’t have to wait until we’re elderly and we’ve lost 50% plus of our strength and function to do something about it.
You can start now. Now is good. As they say… there’s no time like the present!