By Dr. Randall J. Urban
The holidays are a wonderful time of year to spend with family and visit relatives you see only once a year.
Invariably, a discussion takes place among the family about how much weight the elder Aunt Sophie or Uncle Bill has lost since the last holiday gathering and how frail they look.
The family is recognizing a serious and underappreciated medical syndrome termed sarcopenia — the loss of muscle mass and strength that occurs with aging.
Muscle is a dynamic organ that is constantly undergoing remodeling. Our muscles use amino acids that come from dietary protein such as meat to build new muscle. When not enough muscle is built or when too much is broken down and lost, we can become weak and unable to perform normal daily functions.
Sarcopenia is an age-related syndrome that occurs when muscle is broken down at a faster rate than it is added — resulting in a net loss of muscle.
This reduction in muscle mass results in loss of strength and function and can lead to death if not reversed. As we age and lose muscle in a slow and progressive fashion, we not only risk losing physical independence but also immune function or our ability to fight infections.
As Aunt Sophie or Uncle Bill lose muscle and succumb to sarcopenia, the grim reality is they likely will follow an all-too-familiar path — loss of independence and the need for an extended care facility or nursing home; transition from being a slow walker to needing a walker to using a wheelchair; having a chronic cough to requiring hospitalization for pneumonia, to death.
The financial, physical and mental suffering by the elderly and their family is unfathomable and it is occurring in every American family.
Our research team is focused on understanding why muscle is lost with age and how we can reverse sarcopenia. Our studies show that older muscle is less able to use dietary protein to build muscle, with factors such as hormonal status, physical activity levels and chronic inflammation all contributing to age-related muscle loss.
In both men and women, testosterone has a significant impact on the loss of muscle because it not only stimulates muscle growth, it also reduces chronic inflammation. Testosterone is a valuable tool in our studies of age-related muscle loss, and we believe it will help us better understand the reasons behind sarcopenia.
What can you do to lessen sarcopenia? Here are some suggestions:
• Eat a healthy balanced diet that contains protein. Our studies show that dietary protein such as beef, chicken or fish help build healthy muscle.
• Exercise. You can stimulate the growth of new muscle by walking, lifting weights or just by being physically active.
• If you are an older male, ask your doctor to check your testosterone level to make certain you are not deficient.
• Participate in clinical research so we can find more ways to keep you and your muscles healthy.
Dr. Randall J. Urban is professor and chairman of the Department of Internal Medicine, and Dr. Melinda Sheffield-Moore is a professor in the Department of Medicine, Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism at the University of Texas Medical Branch.