In 1988 a new word entered the English language: sarcopenia. It identifies the tendency of our muscles to get smaller and weaker as we age. This is neither an obscure nor an irrelevant condition. In Western cultures, the loss of muscle as the decades go by is precipitous: between the ages of 20 and 80, people typically lose between 35% and 40% of their strength as their muscle mass declines. When someone is described as ‘elderly’, it’s that decline that comes to mind: we think of them as frail. Unsteady on their feet. ‘Elderly’ tells us they sit a lot because it’s difficult to get up and move; or they have difficulty opening a heavy door or crossing the street. In short, when we think of someone getting old, we think of them becoming weak.
Our ability to synthesize energy, to remain slim, to resist disease, to stand upright — all are affected by the strength of our muscles.
Traditionally, there are four indicators a doctor looks at to assess a patient’s well-being: blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, and temperature. But after studying outcomes for a variety of patients (inpatient, outpatient, and those in long-term care), the researchers consistently found that greater muscle mass led to better outcomes across a wide range of conditions. Patients with more muscle had better overall survival rates, better responses to cancer therapies, and better outcomes where chronic obstructive pulmonary disease was a factor; they also showed decreases in Alzheimer’s disease, length of stay in the ICU, and complications due to surgery.
If muscle mass were formally legitimized as a vital sign, medical practitioners would not only derive a more accurate picture of a patient’s health, they could prescribe simple, practical steps to improve it. On average, people in the West start losing muscle at around the age of 30 at a rate of half a pound a year.
“Those who think they have not time for bodily exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness.”
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