Longevity

Longevity Briefs: High Level Athletes Lose Little Muscle After Their 40s

Posted on 18 July 2022

Longevity briefs provides a short summary of novel research in biology, medicine, or biotechnology that caught the attention of our researchers in Oxford, due to its potential to improve our health, wellbeing, and longevity.

Why is this research important: The mass and, more importantly, the strength of our muscles declines with age, leading to increased frailty and risk of injury. Though this can be minimised through exercise, studies generally agree that some degree of muscle loss during ageing is inevitable. This would be because muscle loss isn’t purely caused by disuse – age related changes to the muscle tissue itself, as well as changes in the nervous system, mean that muscle strength will decline even if we maintain the same level of exercise throughout life. However, not all evidence supports this grim assertion.

What did the researchers do: In this study, researchers recruited 40 high level athletes (males and females) aged 40 to 81, primarily runners, bikers and swimmers. Their body compositions were measured, quadricep strength was measured and their quadriceps were imaged using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).

MRI scans of the quadriceps of a 70 and 40 year-old tri-athlete, compared with those of a typical 74 year-old sedentary man.

Key takeaway(s) from this research: In contrast to other studies looking at healthy non-athletes, this study found that muscle mass and strength were largely preserved with age in high level athletes. Overall muscle mass did not significantly decline with age, and while body fat increased with age, this fat remained outside of the muscle tissue itself. More importantly, quadricep strength declined somewhat beginning around age 60, but there was no significant difference in strength between athletes who were in their 60s, 70s and 80s.

The levels of exercise achieved by the participants of this study are unrealistic for most individuals, and research still suggests that the average person who exercises regularly will still lose muscle strength with age. Furthermore, people who remain athletic into their 80s may represent a healthier or slower-ageing group than people who remain athletic into their 60s, which could explain why there was no significant difference in strength between these groups. Even so, this study is a powerful illustration of just how effective exercise can be in preventing muscle loss even into later life.


References

Chronic exercise preserves lean muscle mass in masters athletes: https://doi.org/10.3810/psm.2011.09.1933

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