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Avoiding the age-related muscle loss of Sarcopenia

Age-related muscle loss affects all of us as we age. Typically from the age of 45, people lose 1-2% of muscle every year. This eventually causes fatigue, frailty and increased risk of falls. Dr Max Gowland, founder of Prime Fifty, shares top tips on how to fight it.

Some of our older friends and family manage to stay reasonably active, but the truth is that as most people get older they tend to exercise less. Tiredness and joint problems make it harder, but there is another reason which is largely unheard-of.

A recent survey of over-55s found that only 3% knew about sarcopenia, or age-related muscle loss, without being prompted. This gradual breakdown of muscle causes weakness and is the number one risk factor for falls. Here are some key ways to help them stave it off and stay active.

Get more protein

Protein is the building block for muscle growth and maintenance. But as people age their muscle tissues tend to breakdown at a faster rate than new muscle is reformed. This is the main reason why older muscles tend to reduce in size with age. This means their body’s muscles actually receive less nutrition and lose mass and strength over time.

For this reason, many nutritional experts and indeed, top protein scientists, recommend a higher intake of dietary protein for older people. This can come from a wide variety of sources. Meats including turkey, chicken and beef are rich in protein, as are tuna and other fish. Dairy products are another good place to turn. So it could be valuable to encourage older people to eat more cheese and milk, which will also have the added benefit of helping to keep their bones strong and healthy.

Some more eclectic sources of protein include pumpkin seeds, peanut butter, almonds, and legumes including soya and beans. Protein powder supplements can also help to boost their intake of the essential nutrient and this is also an easy way of helping to get that extra protein without having to overfeed too.

Take gentle weight-bearing exercise

We all know the benefits of walking, cycling and swimming – these cardiovascular activities help to keep our hearts ticking over. But fewer people are aware of the importance of weight-bearing exercise. When it comes to keeping their muscles shipshape, it’s essential to build in some kind of lifting or carrying.

If older people are already fairly active, it might be a good idea to find a special aerobics class they can join, where light weights are used to add muscle-maintaining benefits.

A total lack of exercise or physical activity has the opposite effect. The body’s muscle will atrophy, or decrease over time, in response to not being used. For this reason, some level of exercise is always better than none at all. So, as far as their mobility allows, you should try to make sure they get at least some movement on a regular basis.

Boost vitamin D levels

Everybody’s muscles need vitamin D in order to work efficiently. This nutrient has an impact on the synthesis or processing of proteins by the body. Not only that, but it also plays a vital role in muscle contraction and strength, meaning that t muscle function will be better if people are getting enough vitamin D. Also Vitamin D has now been proven to help prevent falls in older people so is a vital addition to the nutrient cupboard.

Interestingly, most of our vitamin D comes from exposure to sunlight. Getting loved ones out into the sun for as little as 15 minutes a day can be useful, with the optimum times for vitamin D production between 11am and 3pm during the months of summer (April to October).

Sadly, in the UK at least, winter sunlight is not strong enough to trigger enough vitamin D production. So boosting it with dietary sources is crucial and is even now recommended by health professionals who are au fait with the benefits of supplemental nutrition in older age. Eggs, meat and oily fish including salmon, mackerel and sardines, are all rich in vitamin D. Supplements can also be useful in maintaining levels of this vital nutrient.

Help them to get more sleep and rest

It’s a common misconception that older adults need less sleep. In fact, research has shown that they still need the seven or eight hours the rest of us tend to. It’s just that the nature and patterns of sleep change with age.

Older people tend to get tired and sleepy sooner in the evening, and as a result can nod off early and wake up early too. But another common complaint is that once they get to bed, it can be difficult to get to sleep. Insomnia is a problem for many.

How do you help them get the rest they need to stay active and healthy? Try helping them to reduce their caffeine intake. All those cups of tea or coffee can interfere with the body’s sleep rhythms, particularly as they get older. Suggest decaffeinated or herbal alternatives. Cutting down on alcohol and nicotine is also important.

Naps are a good way for them to “top up” their sleep requirements, while more activity during the day – whether that’s exercise, volunteering or even social visits – will help to encourage better sleep at night, reducing tiredness during the day.

Zinc and magnesium are very important

Both of these minerals have a role to play in supporting the healthy function of normal muscle, and can help to keep their muscles in good nick.

So where do you find them? Both are available in supplement form, which can be a simple way to maintain regular levels over time.

When it comes to food sources, zinc is found in shellfish, beef, lamb, dairy foods such as cheese and even dark chocolate, whereas magnesium can be found in plenty of foods such as dark leafy greens, nuts, brown rice, wholegrain bread and fish.

Max Gowland is the founder of Prime Fifty, a range of nutritional supplements developed specifically to meet the needs of the over-50s. They address issues with joints, bone health, muscle loss and fatigue. Find out more on the Prime Fifty website.

If you found this article interesting you may also like to read:

Coping with sleep problems in later life
Why regular walks are good for you and your older relatives
Why eating well is important in dementia

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