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Staying Healthy in Your 60s, 70s and Beyond

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"People don't die of old age, they die of inactivity." It's an amazing statement from the Godfather of Fitness, Jack La Lanne. Amazing because in 10 words it sums up a lifetime of advice.

When you're in your 20s and 30s, muscle loss isn't much of an issue. There aren't many 20 or 30 year olds that can't carry a bag of groceries or walk up a flight of stairs. But when you get into your 40s, you can start to lose a significant amount of muscle mass.

Aging is the primary cause and there's nothing you can do about that. Part of the aging process is losing muscle mass. As you get older, the ability to synthesize muscle protein decreases so it becomes harder and harder for your body to make new muscle tissue. You can still increase the size of the muscles you already have, but new muscle gets increasingly difficult to add.

A sedentary lifestyle or lack of resistance exercise is the other big reason. Today it's common for people to get up in the morning and stand while they're taking a shower, drying off and dressing. Then they get in a car, sit down and drive to work. They walk from their car to their office and sit down again, for the bulk of the day, with the exception of a break for lunch and maybe a meeting or two. Then they walk to their car, sit down and drive home. When they get home they might throw something in the microwave for dinner, but then they'll walk to a comfortable chair in front of the computer or television and spend the rest of the night "unwinding."

Their muscles slowly waste away from neglect.

Don't pat yourself on the back and think you've got it all beat because you work a more physical job like waitperson, chef, clerk or landscaping. Those can all keep you cardiovascularly fit, but they don't prevent you from losing muscle mass.

You're probably thinking, "So what? I might be slowing down a little, but I can still do everything I need to do." You're right. It might not be a problem, today. But over time, your abilities will continue to decline, until you cross a threshold. Suddenly you can't get up that flight of stairs, picking up a grocery bag may be too much to handle or you'll need help getting out of a car.

Now you've gone from being independent, to relying on others for your well being.

The loss of muscle tissue as we age has a name, it's called sarcopenia. For people in their 60s, it's estimated that 45 percent suffer from age-related muscle wasting. If you don't engage in some kind of regular physical activity, that number can soar as high as 80 or 90 percent of people in their 70s and older.

If you're a woman, it gets worse because you're hit with two things. First, women have less muscle mass than men to begin with, so even small amounts of muscle loss can have devastating consequences. Second, women live longer than men. That means women will have to deal with the effects of sarcopenia longer than men. On average, women and men lose 10% of their muscle strength each decade, with women losing a greater percentage at a younger age than men because of gender differences.

Are you already suffering from age related muscle loss?

Then there are the dietary considerations. As people age, they tend to eat less. If your body isn't getting the nutrients (or more specifically muscle building protein) that it needs, muscle loss is accelerated even more.

There is hope. Scott Trappe, PhD and his colleagues wanted to find out the least amount of exercise someone in their 70s could engage in and still stay strong. So they put ten 70-year-old men who didn't exercise, through a 12-week, 3 sessions per week resistance training program. At the end of the 12-week program the men had increased their size and strength by an astonishing 50%. Those subjects reversed more than 20 years of muscle loss in three short months.

Then half the subjects were sent home and told to stop working out. The remaining half followed the same resistance training program as before, but only once a week. The men who stopped exercising started to get weaker again. But, incredibly the men who only worked out one day a week, kept their strength!

Action Items
(This information from a review of research published in the December 2012 issue of Osteoporosis International.)
  1. If you start a resistance-training program early in life, you'll have more muscle mass to work with as you get older.

  2. It's more important for women to engage in some kind of weight training because they start out with less muscle mass than men and they'll have to deal with the effects longer.

  3. You have to eat nutritionally balanced meals, which includes enough protein, so your body has the nutrients to build muscle. The minimal amount of protein intake suggested is 1.0 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilograms of weight. That's the optimum amount for older adults to "maximize muscle function, regeneration and recovery."

  4. Chronic ingestion of acid-producing diets appear to have a negative impact on muscle performance, indicating acid-base balance may be integral to minimizing muscle wasting

  5. If you show signs of high systemic acidity like breathlessness, fatigue or frequent muscle pain and cramping, consider cutting down on acid promoting foods. Examples include: Artificial sweeteners, excessive intake of animal proteins, alcohol, some fruits and vegetables, the majority of processed grains, as well as select condiments and spices. Talk to your doctor or dietitian for specific dietary recommendations.

  6. Even if you're in your 50s, 60s or 70s, you can make dramatic changes to your body with a good resistance-training program.

UPDATE:

Having low muscle strength makes a person 2 times as likely to suffer from "impaired physical function" and "age-related morbidity" as someone with good muscle strength. Low muscle strength is also "a predictor of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular morbidity and mortality, and quality of life" according to a 2013 study on metabolic syndrome and muscle strength by Martin Senechal, et al.

Having low muscle mass makes a person 1.4 times as likely to suffer from "impaired physical function" and "age-related morbidity" as someone with good muscle mass.

UPDATE: RESULTS

A friend (and client) of mine sent me an email on his recent trip to his hometown. I want to share what he wrote so that you might understand both the benefits and consequences of staying active.

In the end he thanks me, but I want everyone to understand HE is the amazing one. HE is the person who regularly shows up to exercise. HE is the one who's careful about what he eats. HE is the one who continuously challenges himself both mentally and physically.

We have the power, every single day to fight back against the ravages of time. Compare how different my friends life is to his contemporaries.  

Hi Dan

Not that I don't otherwise feel this way. But I am particularly grateful to you after little more than 24 hours have elapsed of my trip. I have seen an old friend and his wife, two beautiful sisters I used to do the charleston with, the president of my high school class and a former manager of a major rock band who was also a big show biz host.

They are all in various degrees of geriatric decline, getting new joints, limping around, recovering from heart attacks, struggling with bad backs and so forth. Next two days I dine with two once clever ladies, one a writer, the other a stage and TV performer who have lost their wits.

It is almost embarrassing to be as hale and healthy as I am. I don't say I plan to go to France for xmas or Peru in the spring. Sounds like showing off.

I know my good fortune is not entirely thanks to you, but i believe a considerable part is. As I gaze at my frail and suffering contemporaries, I am all the more aware how much I owe you.

So - Thanks!!

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5/20/2007
Updated 2/20/2013
Updated 9/2/2014
Updated 11/10/2015