You may know that it’s harder to hold onto lean muscle mass as you age – a condition of aging called sarcopenia. In fact, the average person loses 30% of their muscle by the time they reach 60!
While lack of exercise is an obvious reason, sarcopenia is also caused by declining hormone levels and the loss, as we age, of the ability to metabolize protein into energy. It can also be caused by a simple a lack of protein in our diets.
Whatever the cause, declining muscle mass can lead to all kinds of problems. You might be surprised to learn one of them is a higher risk of dementia. Sounds odd, but it’s true. . .
You probably know the obvious effects of sarcopenia. People become weak and frail. This affects their quality of life in a number of ways – none of them good.
For many people, it means they can no longer do the activities they love. It gets harder for them to get around and take care of themselves, which means they lose their independence. Not only that … they’re also more likely to have falls that can easily lead to hospitalization – and greatly increase the risk of death.1
All of that is bad enough. And now comes a recent meta study that links loss of muscle mass to developing dementia. 2
The meta study examined the results of seven other studies that looked at sarcopenia and levels of cognitive impairment. This technique enables the researchers to meld all the data into one pool. There were a total of 5,994 participants – all of them seniors — across the seven studies.
The results showed that the participants with sarcopenia also had more cognitive impairment. They struggled with memory loss, slower response rates, and loss of executive functioning (the mental skills that help us get things done).
Obesity Plus Sarcopenia is Even Worse
People who are weak and frail are often very thin. But that’s not always the case.
There are people who are weak, frail, and also obese. This is called sarcopenic obesity. And it puts you at an even greater risk of developing dementia than sarcopenia alone. That’s what a study from earlier this year concluded.3
The study involved 353 participants with an average age of 69. Researchers measured their short-term memory, executive function, attention, concentration, and other cognitive abilities. They also measured the participants’ muscle mass, muscle strength, and physical performance.
And finally, the researchers measured the participants’ body mass, percent of body fat, and waist circumference.
The participants were then put into one of four groups:
- A control group that was neither obese nor sarcopenic
- People who were obese only
- People with sarcopenia only
- People who were both obese and had sarcopenia
People in group 4 (those who were both obese and had sarcopenia) had the lowest brain cognition scores. They were especially low in executive functioning. The next lowest group was 3 — people who only had sarcopenia. And that was followed by people who were just obese.
So both obesity and sarcopenia on their own affect people’s cognitive ability. But it was measurably worse for people who had both conditions.
The researchers aren’t sure why this is the case. Even so, the link is strong enough that they suggest doctors take note. Doctors can look at their older patients’ strength and body mass index to help determine their potential risk of cognitive decline.
Your Best Defense
Dr. Gayatri Devi is a neurologist specializing in memory disorders at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. Commenting on these findings, she said, “The takeaway from this particular associational study is that good general health is important for good brain health.”
That means making sure you do things that will keep you from losing muscle mass as you age. Part of that means eating high quality proteins. You could also take amino acid supplements to make sure your body is making the best use of the protein you eat.
The other thing you can do is exercise. I’ve often said staying physically active is perhaps the most important single factor in how well people age. It may be the best “medicine” there is, with remarkable benefits in reducing cancer and heart disease as well as cognitive decline.