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What causes muscle loss and what can you do about it?

May 11, 2012, 8:18 a.m.

Not everyone can look like Charles Atlas did as he sailed into his 70s, but there's certainly nothing wrong with trying to look as fabulous. And according to doctors, we should be trying -- every single one of us, regardless of our age -- to fight off the degenerative effects of sarcopenia. Sarcopenia is the fancy word used to describe the muscle loss that occurs as the human body ages. The good news about sarcopenia, however, is that it's not inevitable and there are steps you can take to prevent it from happening.

Causes of sarcopenia

Muscle and weight loss are two of the most undesirable effects of growing older, but there's no law written in stone that it has to happen to any of us. One of the most effective methods of fighting sarcopenia is to lead an active life, since physical inactivity is one of the chief reasons why people lose muscle mass in the first place. There are, however, many people who lead active lives but who still experience muscle loss -- leading to the belief that it's not just inactivity that causes the human body to lose muscle, but other factors as well, like the following.

  1. Diabetes
  2. Kidney disease
  3. Hormonal changes
  4. Heart disease
  5. Age

Unfortunately, there's not much we can do about some of the factors above, especially aging. It's something that happens to the best of us, if we're lucky (considering the alternative). But there are other factors, such as heart disease, that are entirely preventable and taking steps to lead an active life combined with a healthy diet that can lower the risk of developing advanced sarcopenia later in life.

What can be done about sarcopenia?

At about the age of 30, the human body begins to lose muscle at a rate of about 3 to 5 percent per year for people who lead inactive lifestyles. By the time you hit the age of 75, the rate of muscle loss accelerates greatly, leading to inevitable and unfortunate instances of bone fractures caused by falls. So what can be done about sarcopenia? Quite a bit, in fact.

Exercise

The older we get, the more simply leading an active life may not be enough to stave off the ill effects of sarcopenia, which is why doctors are eager to recommend weightlifting exercises as a way to slow the body's loss of muscle. Cardiovascular exercises are great for the heart and are also heartily recommended, but the only sure-fire exercise that will ensure the loss of muscle is slowed down is lifting weights.

Hormone Treatments

Men and women can both benefit from hormone treatments and hormone replacement therapies that boost testosterone levels in the body and greatly slow down the advance of muscle loss.

Diet

Adding protein to your diet is critical in helping your body build muscle, but it's important to see your doctor to discuss options for the types of protein that won't result in unwanted weight gain. Some of the best foods to eat that are lean in calories but heavy in protein include chicken breast, turkey, egg whites and fish. There are also many low-calorie protein supplements and shakes that deliver the positive benefits of protein without causing you to pack on the pounds.

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