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Muscle wasting of old age and ways to stop it

An elderly man is doing stretches on a mat

​According to the latest research, the muscle wasting that is associated with ageing has been attributed to loss of nerves.

Loss of muscle mass with age is called sarcopenia and affects around 10 to 20 10-20% of individuals over the age of 65 years.

In a new study, 95 men aged between 65 and 90 years with various degrees of sarcopenia were compared along with nerve activity with 48 healthy young men aged between 18 and 40 years. Results showed that the older men as expected had a lower muscle mass compared to the younger men. The nerve bundles or motor units of the muscles were 65% lower among older adults with or without sarcopenia. Those with no sarcopenia had a 26 per cent higher nerve activity than younger men. Similarly, those with “pre-sarcopenia” had a 41 per cent higher nerve activity than the younger individuals. Men with sarcopenia tended to have lower nerve activity.

This means that muscle quality and quantity change with age. However, maintaining healthy muscle mass with age could mean that the quality of muscle activity was preserved for longer.

Younger people have 60-70,000 nerves controlling the movement of their legs down from the lower back or spine, this number declines with age. Around 30- 60% of nerves are lost by age, and that leads to muscle wasting.

Therefore the research suggests that older adults must maintain a healthy diet and also regular physical activity to keep their muscles strong and functioning. It is recommended that 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of moderate-intensity activity per week or 30 minutes 5 days a week, accompanied by strengthening exercises at least twice a week.

This research shows that a patient-specific strength-based exercise program from your physio along with 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise 5 days a week will help minimise muscle wasting and loss may be prevented but recovery of the lost muscle fibres is not possible.

Losing the nerve fibres to the muscles early during the ageing process is well known. However, this study shows how the body can adapt and increase the nerve fibres to the muscles to preserve muscle mass and therefore maintain good function and high quality of life.