The importance of maintaining muscle mass as we age

By Dr. Colin O’Brien, ND

older man lifting weight

We rarely talk about how crucial it is to build muscles in our midlife and elderly years. But we really should. By the time we reach into middle years and beyond, we’re already losing muscle mass if we’re not making a point to build it. 

When we think about building muscle, it’s hard not to picture a 20-something adult spending hours in the gym, lifting heavy weights, drinking protein shakes and flexing in the mirror; we rarely think about how crucial it is to build muscles in our midlife and elderly years. But we really should. 

Maintaining muscle mass actually becomes increasingly important with every decade after our 20’s. 

Some estimates show a natural decline on average of 3-8% muscle loss each decade, with this rate accelerated to 12-15% sometime after the age of 55! 

The reasons for this are multifactorial but the odds are just stacked against us: hormone levels drop, digestion slows, appetite and caloric intake both plummet, we’re more likely to get sick and we are often less active. This is commonly because pain is deterring or preventing us from regular exercise.

Either way, the outcome is not good. We need muscles for more than the beach or bragging rights. Lean muscle mass is simply correlated with better health outcomes and it may help you stave off chronic disease. 

In the most obvious scenario, more muscle mass comes with increased strength, better balance and independence. These factors ultimately lower the risk of falls, fractures and injuries.

The reason that breaking a hip when you’re old is so ominous has very little to do with the hip bone itself. It’s the aftermath that is worrisome: bed-ridden for weeks, perhaps in a hospital with a risk of infections and the often-needed surgery to reduce pain and improve mobility. Surgeries also come with risks like blood clots and, again, infections. 

All of that is clearly bad. But you may not know that greater muscle mass also comes with a lower risk of insulin resistance, obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis and heart disease. 

These are big time problems and primary causes of death and disability, leading to reduced quality of life. And we’re not even talking about basic quality of life issues like not being able to open jars, unload a dishwasher or tie shoelaces when muscle loss is severe enough. 

Certainly, it should be more of a priority to ensure that we slow down this natural loss of muscle tissue with age. 

How do we fix this? 

Gradual and safe exercise programs that incorporate resistance training are important, and being more active is a good start. 

Arguably, the bigger issue is getting more protein. Studies where people perform resistance training without adequate protein intake show that they not only don’t build greater muscle mass, but muscle breakdown will occur. Exercise stresses the muscle tissue but amino acids are needed to repair the associated micro-damage and get stronger. 

The good news is that although protein intake without exercise won’t build new muscle, it can help to prevent the natural decline that occurs with aging. 

A number of studies have examined the impact of amino acid supplementation on muscle tissues in individuals on bed rest after a surgery or trauma. These people can’t exercise even at a low-intensity level. 

As one would expect, it is well-documented that both muscle size and strength drastically reduce without any intervention. However, when enough protein or amino acids are supplemented, strength reduction can be minimized and changes in muscle size are negligible. 

Some research suggests that there is a critical one-hour window after exercise where the muscles will greatly benefit from protein intake. But in the case of maintaining muscle mass, it’s really important to ensure adequate protein intake during the entire day or 24-hr time period. 

A typical recommendation for protein intake in older adults is minimum 1-1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (i.e. a 60 kg adult should consume 60-72 kg of protein per day). This intake may be met through diet alone, although in some circumstances additional protein or amino acid supplementation can be helpful. 

It’s also key to mention that maintaining muscle mass needs to be an ongoing focus: just as calcium intake over time is important for our bones, amino acids will always be in high demand as we age. 

You can’t just build muscle and expect it to stay there without proper nourishment or exercise. 

Given the stakes of developing chronic disease and lowering your quality of life, I’d say it’s a small investment to make for your future.

Dr. Colin O’Brien ND is a practicing doctor at Sprout Wellness Clinic in Kitchener-Waterloo, ON. He has a strong focus on clinical nutrition and nutritional supplementation within a family medicine context. He continues to fulfill his passion for research, writing and education in his role as the Medical Director for Cyto-Matrix.