You likely already know that you lose muscle as you get older. But did you know that muscle mass and strength begin to decline in your 30s? If you’re not active, you can lose as much as 5% of your total muscle mass each decade after you hit the 30 mark.
Sarcopenia is the medical term for when both muscle strength and physical performance drop along with muscle mass. As much as 13% of people over the age of 65 have low muscle mass and that percentage increases to as much as 50% in people over the age of 80.
If sarcopenia develops, it puts you at risk for falls and bone fractures, which can result in a waterfall of health complications. While age and all the physiological changes that go along with it are major causes of muscle loss, diet and inactivity are major contributors as well. Muscle loss is not completely reversible—you’ll never get back the muscle mass and strength you had at 25—but you can work to preserve the muscle you have and even build new muscle to maintain strength, balance and stamina. Studies show that even people in their 70s and 80s can benefit from a three-pronged approach that includes strength training, diet, and not smoking.
Strength and resistance training are important for everyone, but especially as you age. Resistance training can include working with elastic tubing, medicine balls, and weight machines. A personal trainer is highly recommended, especially if you’re out of shape or just starting out. Keep in mind that inactivity is a strong contributor to muscle loss and find ways to stay active.
Protein intake every day and at every meal (25 to 30 grams) is an important part of preserving muscle as you age. The current recommendation for protein intake for adults is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day (about 50 grams for a 140-pound adult). However, some experts recommend that older individuals consume 50% more—1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (76 grams of protein for a 140-pound adult). Protein is composed of amino acids. Leucine, the amino acid that assists with muscle development, is highest in animal proteins (beef, poultry, seafood, and dairy), but nuts, seeds, soybeans, and beans are also good sources.
Smoking can impact muscle loss and muscle function, independent of inactivity, by preventing oxygen from being delivered to muscle cells so they can generate energy. In addition, smokers are less likely to be physically active than nonsmokers, further increasing muscle loss.
—Densie Webb, PhD, RD