By Paul Reilly
Millions of older Americans potentially suffer from a condition they have probably never heard of, known as sarcopenia, witch is derived from the Greek words sarx (flesh) and penia (loss or wasting). It is still a poorly defined, little understood and seldom diagnosed syndrome. It has a number of proposed causes, but the one commonly agreed upon is physical inactivity. Those afflicted by sarcopenia are characterized by progressive loss of muscle mass and strength, with a risk of adverse outcomes such as disability, frailty and poor quality of life.
Sarcopenia is prevalent in people between the ages of 60 and 80. The disease is commonly associated with significant physical disability, with an estimated cost of $18 billion a year to the U.S. health system.
Paradoxically, this flesh-wasting condition is often associated with the infiltration of fat into the muscle (known as myosteatosis), resulting in sarcopenic-obesity. Outwardly, sufferers look and feel as though they have gained weight and may in fact be obese. But, sadly, their muscle mass and associated strength have atrophied substantially, resulting in the very discouraging conundrum of weight gain with the loss of muscle mass and strength.
In a recent article published in the journal, Family Practice — The International Journal for Research in Primary Care, Dr. John Morley (Division of Geriatric Medicine, Saint Louis University School of Medicine) likened sarcopenia to osteoporosis. Quoting from the journal, Morley states, “Sarcopenia can be considered for muscle, what osteoporosis is to bone.”
This combination of loss of muscle mass, strength, physical function and the accompanying physical disability, until recently, were considered an inevitable consequence of aging. A significant body of research, however, tells us something different.
For several decades, there has been a growing volume of evidence that unequivocally concludes that the ravages of the aging process are not inevitable. As far back as the 1940s, research has accumulated that muscle wasting and loss of strength is possible to reverse with appropriate strengthening programs.
The safety and effectiveness of strengthening training for older adults was first reported some two decades ago by exercise scientists such as Dr. Wayne Phillips in his article, “Muscular Fitness — Easing the Burden of Disability in Elderly Adults,” in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity. Since then, awareness of the benefits of such training has broadened to encompass far more than simply increased strength. Research has consistently reported that strengthening training improves physical function, cognitive ability and positively affects several chronic diseases. Although the specific clinical diagnosis of sarcopenia is uncommon, strengthening programs are shown to positively affect all of the acknowledged major consequences of the condition.
Think that you may be suffering with sarcopenia? Consult with your physician. Then take heart from the overwhelming evidence that supports that you can reverse the decline. Several programs available throughout the community can help you to restore your lost strength and improve your function. And rest assured that it doesn’t require an insurmountable effort. The evidence also demonstrates that about 20 to 30 minutes of strengthening work, done two to three times per week, can rebuild years of lost strength in only a few months.