Sarcopenia is age-related muscle atrophy, that is, muscle loss associated with aging. As you can imagine a decline in skeletal muscle mass can result in undesirable symptoms such as reduced muscle strength and frailty, which often becomes more pronounced in elderly people.
This article discusses the current evidence-based, natural preventative measures that can be followed to help protect against loss of muscle fibers and muscle wasting associated with older adults.
Protein Synthesis: The Driving Force Behind Skeletal Muscles
The biological process for the construction on new protein structures is referred to a protein synthesis, in skeletal muscle tissue this is known as muscle protein synthesis (MPS). There are many various factors that influence muscle protein synthesis.
Resistance Training Stimulate Muscle Protein Synthesis
Resistance training (RT) and strength training (ST) are some of the most effective ways to stimulate muscle protein synthesis (1). However it doesn’t stop there, stimulating muscle protein synthesis through exercise, is just the start. Assuming that you actually know how to properly workout, in order for your muscles to grow via an adaptive response to exercise, the process has to be continually repeated.
For example, post-exercise muscle protein synthesis has been shown to peak at over double the baseline level within 24 hours of exercise, and subsequently returns to baseline within 36 hours of exercise (2). Therefore frequent sessions of resistance training are required to maintain an elevation in muscle protein synthesis.
It is repeated resistance training sessions that subsequently lead to muscle hypertrophy. For older adults, 3 training sessions per week should be adequate to maintain an elevation in muscle protein synthesis above that of baseline. Furthermore, it is important to note that exercise-science generally recognises that different repetition-ranges elicit different responses in adaptation.
That is, lower rep-ranges performed with heavier loads generally elicit larger gains in muscle growth and hypertrophy, whereas higher repetitions generally elicit more pronounced responses in muscle endurance.
Joint Degeneration and Restricted Blood-Flow Training
Nevertheless lifting heavy weights may not always be viable for elderly gym goers and in this instance other training methods can be used. Sports coach and nutrition expert Paul Jenkins MSc, explains: “Vascular occlusion training is particularly useful for stimulating muscular hypertrophy in older adults suffering form sarcopenia, whose aged joints may not necessarily allow for using heavy weights.”
Vascular occlusion training otherwise known as blood flow restriction training is a method of partially restricting the inflow of blood to a muscle group, while fully restricting the outflow of blood. This is achieved by applying occlusion cuffs (bands) around either the legs or arms prior to training. Low-load resistance exercise is then performed, which is observed to have a similar effect on hypertrophy as with heavy-loads. The increase in hypertrophy through the restriction of blood-flow is believed to be caused by a build up of metabolic stresses, such as lactate.
Fundamentally, 3 resistance based workouts per week, covering your whole body, should effectively stimulate and maintain elevated muscle protein synthesis over and above baseline.
Protein: The Material of Skeletal Muscles
The human body is comprised on trillions of individual cells, of which each cell owes its structure to protein. Skeletal muscles are no different, their ability to expand and contract and generate force is because of their unique sliding protein filament structures (actin & myosin proteins).
Muscle hypertrophy is the increase in cross-sectional are of muscle fibres through the addition of extra protein mass. In people with sarcopenia, there is a reduction in both the sliding protein filaments, and the number of muscle fibres. Scientific research has learned that nutrition plays a major role in both the onset and progression of sarcopenia.
Needless to say without the necessary protein, your body will have a hard time trying to maintain its muscle mass. Eating an adequate amount of protein each day is fundamental to both maintenance of muscle mass, but also muscle hypertrophy.
Most governmental protein guidelines appear to fall well below the scientific recommendations for athletes. For example the NHS reference intakes are only 50 grams of protein per day for adults. This may be enough for sedentary folk, but for athletes of people wanting to promote muscle growth, as with sarcopenia, this amount is insufficient.
According to the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition athletes and resistance trained athletes require 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. Assuming a body weight of 80 kilos, an athlete would need 144 grams of protein per day based on this recommendation. A far cry from the NHS advised intake of 50 grams.
Protein is comprised of smaller sub-units called amino acids, of which 9 of these are deemed essential since they cannot be endogenously synthesised by the human body. Protein quality can therefore vary depending on its amino acid content. Proteins such as fish, meat, and dairy are generally considered first class proteins as these contain a full complement of these essential amino acids.
Some plant-based proteins also contain a full complement of essential amino acids, however plant foods are generally lower in protein than animal sources.
Dairy proteins on the other hand are superior to both animal and plant-based sources. Whey proteins in particular, aside from their superior amino acid content, are known to trigger muscle protein synthesis via a signalling pathway known as mTOR (3).
It is for this reason that whey protein consumed post-exercise can be of particular benefit to sarcopenia sufferers.Â A dose of 40 grams is observed to be more efficacious than 20 grams (4) in triggering muscle protein synthesis. Furthermore, combining whey protein with an equivalent amount of quick digesting carbohydrate such as powdered maltodextrin can also aid in recovery.
The Decline of Anabolic Hormones are Associated with Sarcopenia
The study of the aging process, although not yet fully understood, has uncovered some interesting facts. As we age production of hormones that are vital for maintaining and building skeletal muscle tissue, decline. One of the most important anabolic hormones that influence skeletal muscle mass, is testosterone.
Simple dietary steps can be taken to ensure optimal intake of nutrients that influence hormone production. For testosterone there are 3 key minerals; zinc, boron, selenium.
Zinc Picolinate or Zinc Gluconate
Due to modern farming and food processing, zinc deficiency is prevalent throughout the world. Biological-science recognises that zinc may play a critical role in promoting testosterone levels (5). Unfortunately zinc pools are relatively small and can easily be depleted through sweat and male ejaculation.
Supplementing with 22mg of zinc picolinate can help maintain your zinc stasis and thus contribute toward a healthy and normal testosterone level.
The trace mineral boron is essential for health and has an abundance of biological functions, including bone growth, magnesium absorption, improving the effectiveness of vitamin D, and influencing testosterone (6).
Eating foods such as almonds, apricots and raisins can help boost your intake of boron. Additionally, supplementing with 2 milligrams of boron daily can help maintain adequate levels and optimise testosterone production.
Essential micro-nutrients don’t just have one function and selenium is no exception. Studies show that selenium has an array of biological activities, including potent antioxidant function along with influencing sperm and testosterone production in men (7).
Gram for gram, brazil nuts contain the most selenium of any food on the planet. Eating just 5 brazil nuts each day, preferably before bed, can help to boost testosterone levels. However it’s important not to over-eat on brazil nuts; due to their super-high selenium content, consuming too many could potentially lead to over-dosing on selenium which could result in hair loss.
Aging is inevitable for everyone, but the degeneration of skeletal muscle tissue associated with aging, can be prevented. Exercise and nutrition both have a significant influence on skeletal muscle mass and body composition. Science teaches us that by following all of the principles set out in this paper, you can delay, or arguably even prevent sarcopenia.
Finally, regular exercise and good quality nutrition are choices that are available to us all. These principles can be used not just to promote health ageing, but also to promote good health in both young and old.
If you wish to maintain your health status, incorporate these principles into your lifestyle.
Sports coach and nutrition expert Paul Jenkins MSc, explains: “Vascular occlusion training is particularly useful for stimulating muscular hypertrophy in older adults suffering form sarcopenia, whose aged joints may not necessarily allow for using heavy weights.”
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