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How to Prevent Muscle Atrophy As We Age

Oct 4, 2021

How to Prevent Muscle Atrophy As We Age


In common terms, a loss of muscle bulk and strength is called atrophy. In many ways, atrophy is the opposite of building up muscles. Medically speaking this condition is known as sarcopenia – a decline of skeletal muscle as we age. It begins as early as age 40 and, without intervention, gets increasingly worse, with as much as half of muscle mass lost by age 70.

Unfortunately, if we do not take actions to counteract muscle atrophy, we continue losing strength and physical ability. Sarcopenia is one of the most important causes of functional decline and loss of independence in older adults. Remember, this starts in our 40’s, possibly earlier in more sedentary lifestyles. Sarcopenia is also associated with several chronic diseases, increasingly worse insulin resistance, increased body fat, fatigue, falls and, alas, death.

A decline in physical activity is only one reason sarcopenia happens. Other contributing factors include:

  1. Malnutrition: Severe malnutrition and lack of nutrients and protein can contribute to muscle atrophy because nutrients and proteins are necessary for normal muscle development and function. This lack of adequate nutrition can occur because of serious illnesses and may also be associated with strong medications, such as certain cancer drugs.
  2. Neurological disease: If we have a neurological condition, such as neuropathy, cerebral palsy, stroke, or spinal cord disease, we may have muscle weakness of the face, arms, or legs. When we don't use our muscles, the lack of stimulation and exercise may cause them to become thinner. This thinning may also cause our muscles to lose strength above and beyond that which is caused by the neurological problem.
  3. Prolonged illness/hospitalization: If we have been sick due to a long bout of infection, cancer, or another illness requiring a long stay in the intensive care unit, our decreased mobility and lack of nutrition can contribute to muscle atrophy.

The great news is that muscle atrophy (sarcopenia) can be largely prevented. Even if there has been muscle atrophy due to any number of reasons, it can be reversed with wonderful results.

If we, or a loved one, are concerned with muscle atrophy, here are important factors to put in place:

  • Stay active – the activity should be enjoyable and consistent. We can vary our physical activity with indoor and outdoor pursuits. Walking, lifting weights, doing yoga, riding bicycles, and playing with our kids or grandkids are just a few ways to keep active.
  • Physical therapy – participating in physical therapy or a guided rehabilitation program is a great way to start rebuilding lost skeletal muscle. Learn techniques and activities that will safely return muscle development along with aerobic capacity.
  • Boost nutrition – proper nutrition is vital to building muscle structure. Seek guidance from a qualified nutrition expert to see what nutrients might be missing from our diet. Muscle and support structures cannot be built without good, balanced nutrition.

In addition to preventing atrophy, these activities can help us in several other ways. Following these recommendations can bring about wonderful relief from joint stiffness and pain, improved emotional outlook and possible recovery from depression, and advances in mental acuity with improvements in memory and cognition.

No matter where we are in life, today is a great day to get started preventing and reversing muscle atrophy. Be Blessed.

Category: Dr. Sterling