The theory that muscle mass and strength decline as a function of ageing is under intense scrutiny. New research suggests a sedentary lifestyle may play a larger role than previously thought.
Getting old has long been associated with functional decline, a subjective feeling of weakness and eventually a loss of independence. This by and large is as a result of muscle wasting or atrophy.
This reduction in muscle mass and strength has major repercussions for the elderly. While modern medicine has come on in leaps and bounds, keeping us alive longer and longer, there has been little investigation into how we can make these extra years’ worth living.
The healthcare and social costs of caring for the elderly who are unable to look after themselves or are even classified as disabled are staggering and this is set to increase over the next 20 years.
Currently 1 in 6 of the UK population is over 65, that’s approximately 10 million people. It is estimated that by 2033 this figure will have risen to 15 million, potentially spiralling costs out of control. So far the government has no answer.
Much of the scientific literature to date has focused on sedentary populations, or those that take part in little or no exercise. Therefore when a change is observed in the muscle it is unfair to assume that it is solely down to ageing. There is the possibility that the change is due to inactivity.
Research published in The Physician and Sports Medicine in September 2011 challenges this theory. In order to remove physical inactivity as a potential cause of changes in muscle physiology Wroblewski et al. recruited so called “masters” athletes. Forty of these individuals (20 male and 20 female) ranging from 40 to 81 years of age were selected. All exercised at high intensities 4-5 times per week. Eliminating the possibility that declines in muscle mass are due to inactivity
Participants were put through a series of strength tests in addition to having a full-body MRI scan to determine such variables as mid-thigh muscle area, quadriceps area, body fat percentage and subcutaneous adipose tissue (fat).
They found that those aged in excess of 70 years had higher body fat percentages and fat mass in concordance with other research. However, there was no difference across the age range in the amount of power (peak torque) developed by the quadriceps. There was also no difference in the mid-thigh muscle area and quadriceps area.
This suggests that a progressive loss of muscle may have more to do with the type of lifestyle we lead than the absolute potential of musculoskeletal ageing.
Therefore provided that we avoid a sedentary lifestyle, use our muscles regularly and eat a healthy diet, we are more than capable of preserving both muscle mass and strength well into our final years.
Similar research suggests that just 6 months of resistance training in elderly men can increase lower limb strength in excess of 50%, indicating that ageing muscle can get stronger in the short-term.
Unfortunately although enough literature exists to associate chronic exercise with retention in physical ability a successful intervention programme is yet to materialise.
While doctors and sports clinicians have a duty of care towards the elderly, and will continue to advise them as best they can, in order to minimise or even eradicate the problem in future generations much effort will be placed on enforcing an exercise culture on youngsters.
The government continues to reiterate that one of the most important aspects of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games is the legacy they leave behind. If targets are met and more and more children become involved in sport, reducing obesity and creating an exercising culture, in 50 years’ time we may well look back with fond memories of the games and realise what a bargain they turned out to be.
 Wroblewski et al. (2011) – https://physsportsmed.org/sites/default/files/rpsm.2011.09.1933_secure.pdf
 The ageing population (2007) – https://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons/lib/research/key_issues/Key%20Issues%20The%20ageing%20population2007.pdf