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Exercise & Fitness for Senior Citizens

At age 75, would a senior Popeye still be able to take on Bluto?

New study finds tools to better identify senior citizens at risk of functional decline; design programs building resistance and power

Aug. 14, 2013 - If Popeye were to age naturally like the rest of us, he would need more than just big muscles to stay independent during his senior years. When it comes to muscles and aging, the important thing is quality, not quantity, as shown by the findings of new study.

Published in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, the study looked at the relationship between functional independence and muscle mass and quality in 1219 healthy women aged 75 and older. It was by Mylène Aubertin-Leheudre, PhD, a researcher at the Research Centre of the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal, affiliated with Université de Montréal.

It should be noted, the researchers say, that these results are applicable to men's health as well.


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This study consisted in analyzing the biometric data of the women. The researchers assessed body composition, handgrip and knee extension strength. Physical functions were measured with the chair stand test and gait speed test (usual and fast).

Participants also had to indicate whether they experienced difficulty performing functional tasks. Independently of muscle mass, participants with high muscle quality had low risks of functional impairment, whereas people with high muscle mass but low muscle quality had high risks of impairment.

The analysis showed that women who maintained better muscle quality (the ratio of strength to muscle mass) also had better functional reserves, which help people maintain independence. Women with lower muscle quality had a three to six times higher risk of developing functional impairments (e.g., difficulty walking, getting up from a chair, or climbing stairs).

“These results contradict what has been believed for a long time about muscles and aging. Many seniors, whom we often perceive as frail and fragile, can surprise us by their muscle strength. Although inevitable, age-related muscle loss (a normal process called “sarcopenia” - see below) should no longer be seen as a sign of weakness,” stated Aubertin-Leheudre.

She hopes that these findings will give health care professionals tools to better identify seniors at risk of functional decline and to design physical activity programs that would specifically target resistance and power and not simply a gain in muscle mass. Popeye should take heed!

About Sarcopenia:

 Decreased physical activity with aging appears to be the key factor involved in producing sarcopenia

Sarcopenia is a term utilized to define the loss of muscle mass and strength that occurs with aging. Sarcopenia is believed to play a major role in the pathogenesis of frailty and functional impairment that occurs with old age. Progressive muscle wasting occurs with aging.

The prevalence of clinically significant sarcopenia is estimated to range from 8.8% in young old women to 17.5% in old old men. Persons who are obese and sarcopenic (the "fat frail") have worse outcomes than those who are sarcopenic and non-obese.

There is a disproportionate atrophy of type IIa muscle fibers with aging. There is also evidence of an age-related decrease in the synthesis rate of myosin heavy chain proteins, the major anabolic protein. Motor units innervating muscle decline with aging, and there is increased irregularity of muscle unit firing. There are indications that cytokines-especially interleukin-1beta, tumor necrosis factor-alpha, and interleukin-6-play a role in the pathogenesis of sarcopenia.

Similarly, the decline in anabolic hormones-namely, testosterone, dehydroepiandrosterone growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor-I-is also implicated in the sarcopenic process.

The role of the physiologic anorexia of aging remains to be determined. Decreased physical activity with aging appears to be the key factor involved in producing sarcopenia. An increased research emphasis on the factors involved in the pathogenesis of sarcopenia is needed.

>> More…

Morley JE, Baumgartner RN, Roubenoff R, Mayer J, Nair KS - Division of Geriatric Medicine, Saint Louis University School of Medicine, MO 63104

>> More on Sarcopenia at MedlinePlus

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