The Importance of Muscle Health for Longevity

Muscle mass declines as we age, leading to increased risk of chronic disease. Eating adequate protein and strength training can help maintain muscle and support healthy aging.

Muscle is a Crucial But Overlooked Organ

Skeletal muscle makes up about 40% of our body weight and is our largest organ. However, its importance for metabolic health and longevity is often overlooked.

As integrative physician Dr. Gabrielle Lyon explains, we tend to focus on obesity defined by excess body fat. But the bigger issue is actually under-muscled bodies characterized by low muscle mass, a condition known as sarcopenia.

Muscle Impacts Metabolism and Chronic Disease Risk

Muscle plays a key role in:

  • Glucose disposal and diabetes risk
  • Cardiovascular health
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Overall metabolic regulation

More muscle mass is linked to:

  • Increased strength
  • Lower mortality
  • Ability to fight illness and disease

Muscle Loss Contributes to Aging Related Decline

As we get older, we experience anabolic resistance – muscle has a harder time utilizing protein to repair and build tissue. This leads to loss of muscle mass and strength known as sarcopenia.

Consequences of sarcopenia include:

  • Decreased mobility
  • Falls and fractures
  • Loss of independence

Muscle loss is a major reason older adults end up in nursing homes. It’s not illness that lands them there, but the inability to get out of a chair due to low muscle mass.

Protein Intake Matters for Muscle Health

Protein provides amino acids that are the building blocks for muscle tissue. However, protein needs change as we get older.

Higher Protein Needs with Age

Starting around age 40, anabolic resistance sets in. To build muscle, older adults need higher protein intake compared to younger people.

When young, growth hormone and testosterone help utilize protein. As these hormone levels decline with age, it takes more dietary protein and amino acids to stimulate muscle growth.

Percentage of Calories from Protein

How much protein should someone eat? Recommendations vary, but likely 30% or more of total calories.

On lower calorie diets, an even higher percentage from protein is advised. This prevents utilizing muscle for energy when calories are restricted.

Animal vs Plant Proteins

Not all proteins are equal. Animal proteins provide all the amino acids required to build muscle tissue. Plant proteins may fall short.

Vegans and vegetarians can still build muscle with diet and exercise. But they may need more protein overall plus supplemental amino acids.

Branched chain amino acid supplements can help vegetarians and vegans get adequate muscle building blocks.

Maintaining Muscle for Healthy Aging

To age well, preserving muscle mass gained earlier in life is key. Two ways to maintain muscle are diet and exercise.

Assess Your Muscle Levels

Doctors can measure muscle mass via scans like DEXA. Tracking muscle can reveal unhealthy loss before it becomes severe.

Sarcopenia often goes undiagnosed. If identified early, dietary changes and exercise can help slow muscle wasting.

Optimize Protein Intake

Eat adequate high quality protein spaced throughout the day. Quantity depends on size, activity level, and calories consumed.

Older adults likely need more than the 0.8g/kg/day minimum. Shoot for at least 1g/kg, up to 1.2-2.0g/kg for athletes or those reducing calories.

Time protein intake around exercise to best support muscle repair and growth.

Incorporate Strength Training

Resistance exercise stimulates muscle growth. Weight lifting, power training, bodyweight exercises, and other strength activities help maintain and build muscle mass.

Start light and focus on good form. Build up weight and intensity gradually over time. Aim for lean muscle mass through diet and exercise now to support mobility, metabolism and healthspan as you age. It’s one of the best ways to extend your active, healthy years.

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