As reported by The Hartford Courant, March 1, 2006.

Losing Muscle Mass Is Key Issue

By Korky Vann

Most seniors are aware of the dangers of osteoporosis, a disease that leads to loss of bone density and contributes to debilitating and sometimes deadly falls. But an equally incapacitating condition, which leads to loss of muscle mass and strength as we age, is not so well known.

"Sarcopenia," a term that translates to "vanishing flesh," or "flesh loss," is a new label for an old phenomenon, according to a report done by the International Longevity Center, an aging issues think tank in New York City.

Irwin Rosenberg, a doctor at the Jean Mayer Human Nutrition Center on Aging at Tufts University, came up with the name in 1988 in hopes of raising public awareness, but in spite of the Greek moniker, sarcopenia's profile remained low.

Dr. George Kuchel, director of the Center on Aging at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, thinks that's about to change.

"Sarcopenia is suddenly a hot topic in aging and geriatric research," says Kuchel. "In the coming years, sarcopenia is going to be one of the biggest health problems we face. It has a devastating effect on mobility and mortality in older adults, and we desperately want to know how to prevent it."

According the Alliance for Aging Research, a Washington nonprofit organization that promotes aging-related medical research, sarcopenia is widespread, affecting roughly 45 percent of Americans 60 and older. Studies show that muscle loss begins in middle age and proceeds at the rate of about 1 percent a year. As individuals lose muscle mass, they also lose strength and their ability to perform such everyday tasks as walking, climbing stairs or even getting up from a chair.

And in spite of osteoporosis's higher profile, several recent studies show that while thinning bones make seniors especially vulnerable to fractures, it's the unsteadiness caused by muscle wasting in the legs that leads to falls and the inability to live independently.

Older people with advanced sarcopenia frequently need nursing home care.

"The condition has serious health consequences, including $18.5 billion in related disability costs and contribution to falls, obesity and Type 2 diabetes," Chhanda Dutta, chief of the clinical gerontology branch at the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Md., said at a 2005 Capitol Hill briefing sponsored by the Alliance for Aging Research.

While pharmaceutical companies are searching for a treatment for the condition, Kuchel says, the best way for older people to reduce frailty, become more mobile and slow down muscle loss is through exercise and better nutrition.

"Diet and exercise are the remedies we have right now, and they seem to work," says Kuchel.

A study by the International Longevity Center and Canyon Ranch Health Resorts showed that older people improved strength, balance and walking speed by performing strength training exercises as little as twice a week. Kuchel says research has also shown that even nursing home patients can benefit from a regular exercise routine.

And it turns out that mom was right when she told you that eating your vegetables would help build strong muscles.

"Eat a well-balanced diet," advises Kuchel. "Cut down on fats, eat more fruits and vegetables and grains. If you're overweight, lose weight. Adapt a regular, low-impact exercise program. Remember, you can lose muscle strength very quickly if you're sedentary, so keep moving. It's one of the most important things you can do."