September is Healthy Aging Month, an annual observance designed to focus national attention on the positive aspects of growing older. Among these positive aspects are the contributions older Americans make to our community every day. Indeed, seniors make their mark by donating their time, talents, and experience to benefit society in all kinds of ways. This might include volunteering at hospitals or art museums, serving as crossing guards for school-aged kids, delivering meals to homebound individuals, and various other activities.
Many of these older adults are active and physically fit. However, there are also those who are not as energetic or fit and even fall into the frail category. Why does this happen? From birth until about age 30, your body is in muscle-building mode, but as you enter your mid-30s, you begin to lose muscle mass as a natural part of the aging process. This is called age-related sarcopenia.
People who are physically active lose about three percent of their muscle mass each decade, but in people who are not physically active, sarcopenia can happen much faster. After the age of 75, this condition can really kick into high gear. Oftentimes the evidence is seen in the legs, which appear very thin due to the muscle-wasting process.
The good news is, muscle loss is not necessarily an unavoidable byproduct of aging, provided we take steps to prevent it. What can you do to keep sarcopenia at bay? Perhaps not surprisingly, exercise—specifically weight training/resistance training—is the main treatment for sarcopenia. Keep in mind, though, that beginning a strength-training regimen without proper instruction and guidance can be counterproductive. Working with an exercise specialist is often the best way to determine the proper form, intensity, frequency, and number of reps in order to get the most benefit out of your exercise regimen without injuring yourself.
Naturally, diet plays a role as well. It’s important to get enough calories and protein each day to sustain muscle mass. Protein is the most valuable nutrient for repairing and building muscle fibers, yet a significant percentage of us don’t get enough of it. Studies show that 12% of men and women over the age of 70 eat significantly less than the recommended amount of protein, which is 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight each day for healthy adults. Those with sarcopenia need even more protein—1.2 to 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight.
What foods are good sources of protein? Most meat, poultry, and fish have about 7 grams of protein per ounce, and one cup of milk or an egg contains about 8 grams of protein. The best protein sources include grass-fed beef, organic whey protein, lentils, organic chicken, black beans and other beans, milk, yogurt, eggs, and cheese. And keep in mind that it’s important to have some protein after you exercise for muscle repair.
While the number-one cause of sarcopenia is lack of exercise and inactivity combined, even people who have been physically active all their lives experience age-related sarcopenia because other factors also play a role, such as the aging of nerve cells, inadequate intake of calories and protein, the body’s ability to synthesize protein, and decrease in growth hormones.
But it’s not all downhill from here! Be positive—think about your current age and how you want to be 10 years from now. To reach that goal, you’re going to need to move more, lift more, and choose protein-rich foods. Remember, September is time to celebrate healthy aging. Its time to rejuvenate and eat right!
Laurie Syring, RD/LD, is Clinical Nutrition Manager at ProMedica Flower Hospital.