Losing Muscle? How Muscle Plays a Vital Role in Health and What You Can Do to Keep it

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How Muscle Plays a Vital Role in Health

By Suzette Pereira, Ph.D.

Muscle loss can sneak up on older adults and it’s more common than some may think. In fact, people over the age of 40 may lose up to 8% of their muscle mass per decade and the rate of decline may double after the age of 70. Advanced muscle loss, or sarcopenia, is a problem that increases with age, especially in those individuals in the hospital or long-term healthcare settings.

While aging is natural, losing too much muscle is not. Telltale signs of muscle loss can include weight loss, low energy and fatigue, a slower walking speed and weakness. And it’s understandable if you or a loved one has recently experienced some of these symptoms, as many people have lost muscle mass due to decreased activity and poorer nutrition throughout the pandemic. The good news is, it’s never too late to rebuild muscle, which is critical when we consider the vital role muscle plays in helping our bodies function. 

Muscle mass is a strong indicator of overall health, as it supports strength, energy and mobility, regulates metabolism and contributes to organ function, among others. However, what many people may not know is that muscle health is also closely linked to immunity. In fact, recent research suggests that loss of muscle mass is associated with compromised immunity and infections.

As we head into cold and flu season, keeping the immune system in tip-top shape is at the forefront of everyone’s minds. In addition to getting a flu vaccine, practicing frequent hand-washing and surface cleaning, there are other proactive steps that can be taken – including maintaining a healthy diet and regular exercise routine – to help increase or maintain muscle mass to support immune health. 

By moving and fueling muscles regularly, you can take steps to support your immune system and optimize overall health when it matters most. Here are some simple lifestyle tips to help you or a loved one get started.

1Stay active

Generally, older adults should try for at least 2.5 hours of aerobic exercise per week. If you are not fully energetic, getting up and taking short walks is still important to engage foundational muscles to maintain mobility. For others who are more active, keeping up with regular workouts that include some resistance or weight-bearing exercises is really important. It’s easy to build in resistance training – try using arm weights or swap in canned goods and for the legs, hold on to the back of a chair for calf raises.

2Prioritize a protein-packed diet

Diet can support muscle health when it’s well balanced with veggies, fruits, proteins, healthy fats and key vitamins and minerals, including vitamin A (spinach, carrots), C (red peppers, kiwi), D (salmon, fortified milk), E (almonds, sunflower seeds) and zinc (lean beef, baked beans). Surprisingly, protein – which is an essential macronutrient for muscle growth and the production of antibodies and immune system cells – is often a missing piece of the nutrition puzzle for older adults. A study found that more than 1 in 3 of adults over 50 years old are not getting the daily recommended amount of protein. To avoid missing the protein mark, aim for 25-30 grams at every meal by eating a wide variety of protein-packed foods, such as lean meats, eggs and beans.

3Ask your doctor about HMB

HMB, which stands for beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate, can help maintain muscle. Your body naturally produces HMB, which is a helpful molecule that tells our muscles to make more protein and tear down less.

As scientific as it sounds, HMB is made by the body. However, your body only produces very small amounts of HMB and the levels naturally decrease with age.

A nutrition supplement like Ensure® Enlive, which has 20 grams of protein and 3 grams of calcium HMB, can help fill nutrition gaps. Talk to a healthcare provider or a dietitian to find out if a nutrition supplement is right for you.

Suzette Pereira, Ph.D. is a muscle health researcher at Abbott. She leads studies focused on muscle health and aging. Her research focuses on evaluating nutritional therapies that can prevent muscle and strength declines due to sarcopenia, hospitalization and chronic diseases. She conducts clinical and preclinical studies to identify key ingredients that can help preserve muscle.  

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