If you’re over 25 years old, welcome to the sarcopenia club. Sarcopenia is the loss of muscle mass, strength and performance with age.
New research from Harvard and the University of New South Wales has shown that small molecules can be designed and used to supplement a normal diet resulting in specific genetic expression that delays the onset of sarcopenia symptoms and increases lifespan in mice . With these new findings we may be one step closer to finding the “fountain of muscle.” These small designer molecules may soon extend the human lifespan while retaining the added quality of life that comes from increased muscle mass and strength.
While having a “fountain of muscle” is a very exciting prospect, we can all begin delaying the onset of sarcopenia today through improved exercise and nutrition.
The dynamic duo of age-related frailty are sarcopenia and osteoporosis. Whereas osteoporosis causes loss of bone density, sarcopenia causes loss of muscle mass at a rate of 0.5% to 1% per year after age 25. It is part of a downward spiral where decreased strength leads to injury, which leads to decreased strength and further injury. Since it is expected to happen to everyone over 25 it is not considered a disease.
Sarcopenia is identified by measuring muscle mass, strength and performance. Muscle mass can be monitored with simple measurements using a tape measure (anthropometry), or with more complex techniques such as CT, MRI, DXA (Dual energy X-ray absorptiometry), or BIA (Bioimpedance analysis). Often handgrip strength is used to measure muscle strength, and a physical performance test is given. Details can be found here.
Everyone is not affected equally with sarcopenia and sedentary lifestyle is one of the identified causes. There is a group of researchers that believe that sarcopenia is aggravated by lifestyles that have become too sedentary when compared to the action-packed environment under which evolution is thought to have occurred.
It is as if we are sending our body the wrong signals by being sedentary. Lack of movement causes the body to enter a catabolic state that causes deconstruction of tissues and organs. On the other hand, exercise sends signals to the body causing an anabolic state that results in the build up of tissues and organs, such as muscles and bone.
But a little common sense tells us the same thing. The body is designed with over 600 skeletal muscles. We are designed for movement and movement in abundance! It should be no surprise that our bodies function better when in motion. It should be no surprise that we begin suffering from sarcopenia at age 25 if we are sitting in cubicles exercising only our finger muscles on a keyboard most of the day.
If we are interested in health, office work stations will need to be designed first and foremost with the need for movement in mind. Each workstation would need to have a built-in treadmill with a means to lower or raise the desk to accommodate running, standing or sitting positions. Oh and don’t forget the exercise bands built into the chair to allow arm workouts throughout the day.
A sedentary life has other complications because our bodies have a mind of their own. Consider what happens when you are driving and become sleepy. To the body, the visual input indicating movement does not mesh with the lack of muscle activity. Your body decides it’s safe to sleep because it responds to muscle status over visual status, and so it begins to transition you to the sleep state. Your mind knows that you are moving at a life threatening speed and rebels against the pressure to sleep, but to no avail. Only by inducing movement can the mind convince the body to stay awake.
Unfortunately, automobile designers strive to design vehicles that require very little muscular effort to drive, ignoring the fact that our 600 muscles need constant stimulus to remain not only awake but healthy. As we begin the health care transition from a model of disease-care to one of prevention, we will very likely begin to design vehicles that function more like power-assist devices allowing the riders to contribute to the work load and thus remain active while in motion.
In conclusion, although we may be able to design molecules in the future that promote muscle mass and longevity, supplements from the “fountain of muscle” will very likely work best when combined with lifestyle modifications that challenge our abundant muscular design. So lets find ways to stay active thoughout the day.