From your 40s you begin to lose muscle mass, which means you burn fewer calories, have weaker bones and are at increased risk of broken bones.
Sarcopenia is the medical term for muscle loss, from the Greek meaning ‘vanishing flesh’ and it affects everyone over the age of 25, with the process accelerating as you get older. ‘Vanishing flesh’ may sound like the stuff of dieters’ dreams, but sarcopenia isn’t to be taken lightly – it can be extremely debilitating, affecting not just your physique, but your reflexes and energy levels too.
How muscle loss changes as you get older
“And although age-related muscle loss begins relatively early in life, once you hit 60, the process accelerates dramatically, doubling from 0.5% per year to 1%, then 2% at age 70, 4% at 80 and so on,” says Michael Rennie, Professor of Clinical Physiology at the University of Nottingham Medical School in Derby.
Sarcopenia begins its process by getting on your nerves, literally. Neural pathways in your brain that control certain muscles and movements are lost or damaged, and cause those muscles to atrophy through lack of use.
If you’re also enjoying a more sedentary lifestyle, your muscle use declines even further. Once your muscle has checked out, fat moves in – and when fat cells find a new home they’re very difficult to kick out.
Fat masks your body’s muscle loss making you less likely to realise what’s happening. “Because the process of muscle loss is so slow to start with, we don’t notice it,” says Rennie. “Then suddenly, after a decade or so, we suddenly realise our physique has changed.” Where you were lean and muscular, you’re now wobbly but you may well still fit into the same trousers you did a decade ago.
How muscle loss affects your health
But carrying extra baggage around isn’t just about fitting into your favourite old clothes, it also lowers your metabolism. And the slower you burn off calories, the more weight you’ll put on, unless you change your diet or do more exercise. The heavier and less fit you become, the more difficult it is to get up and get exercising. It’s a vicious circle.
Being overweight has plenty of negative health repercussions in itself, but even without the added lard muscle loss can be extremely serious. “Coordination is affected by changes in your muscle strength,” says Rennie. “Your gait changes and you lose the ability to balance, making you more likely to fall and fracture a hip or other joint.” Weak muscles also make you feel exhausted, contributing to an overall feeling of fatigue. This adds to the problem, as it makes you less likely to maintain an active lifestyle.
Even your response times are affected. Where you used to be able to catch a mug or pint of milk before it hit the floor, now you find it often falls to the ground. “When people get older and find they can’t respond as quickly to a situation as they used to, they often assume it’s a symptom of nerve or brain deterioration,” says Rennie, “But more often than not it’s caused by changes in their muscles and tendons.”
How to beat age-related muscle loss
The good news is that although some age-related deterioration of your muscles is inevitable, exercise helps to keep it to a minimum. And although it’s ideal to maintain your fitness throughout life, it’s not too late to start muscle training now.
People in their 70s, 80s and 90s who took part in a study at the Center on Aging at Tufts University, Boston, US, managed to double their muscle strength during a 10-week training period.
Even smug super-fit joggers and walkers need to adapt their lifestyles if they’re to prevent their muscles wasting away, because aerobics just isn’t enough. “Resistance training, which involves contracting your muscles as hard as you can, rather than aerobic exercise such as running, is ideal for preventing age-related muscle loss,” says Rennie.