Muscle function inevitably declines with age due to a variety of factors, including the exhaustion of muscle stem cells and consequent loss of regenerative ability. This muscle loss can significantly impact quality of life and increases the risk of developing various medical conditions.
However, research suggests that it is possible to slow or even reverse this decline via lifestyle practices. Exercise is a particularly effective approach, with some research suggesting that exercise can actually restore youthful function to muscle stem cells.
What we have learned through research is that there are actions we can take to slow the loss and function of muscle as we age. Doing physical activities that increase and maintain muscle is one example. This means being consistent with activities that challenge the muscle to get stronger. Think of muscle as a “use it or lose it” body part.
Unfortunately, older adults who have already suffered significant muscle loss may find it difficult to partake in many forms of exercise. While unlikely to be as effective as exercise, diet is also another factor that may be controlled to slow muscle loss.
Recent studies have suggested that the amount of protein needed by older adults may be a bit higher than the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA). For example, there is evidence that when older adults increased their protein intake to 75-90gm a day, and spread it over three meals and two snacks per day (instead of consuming most of the daily intake at the evening meal) it slowed the loss of muscle. Adequate protein intake can also help to counter inflammation.
In addition, it appears that adequate protein intake coupled with physical activity can increase/sustain muscle better than just higher protein or physical activity alone. Also note that adequate intake of total daily calories is needed to spare protein for use by the muscles instead of it being stolen by the body to cover energy needs.
Fruits and vegetables are also being studied for their positive impact on slowing muscle changes with aging. These contain nutrients that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that can help to protect muscle tissues from oxidative stress and chronic inflammation. A good goal is to consume at least five servings a day of fruits and vegetables.
Vitamin D is a nutrient that appears to be important for sustaining muscle as well. For persons with minimal sun exposure, a supplement may be warranted to prevent insufficiency as food sources are limited. In general, however, healthy foods tend to provide a wider range of nutrients than supplemental products, although as noted, in some situations they might be useful.