What is Sarcopenia, and Why Does it Matter?

Sarcopenia feature

We all know that as we age, the risk of falling increases, along with the danger of greater damage to our bodies. That’s partly because we become frailer as the years increase. But sometimes, something called sarcopenia is to blame. What is it, and why should you care? Keep reading.

What is sarcopenia?

Sarcopenia is the progressive loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength, and it adds up to a decline in your ability to function. It hits some of us as early as 30, essentially taking its toll in a loss of muscle mass and strength. 

Why should you be worried?

Here’s the bottom line: People with sarcopenia are around twice as likely to be hospitalized as those without the condition, and the mortality rate of older adults with sarcopenia is 41% higher than those without it! Pretty drastic, right? That’s because as you lose muscles and strength, you face an increased risk of adverse health outcomes, including loss of independence, risk of falls, and more frequent hospitalization. Studies show this loss in strength happens two to five times faster than a loss in muscle mass and more consistently increases the risk of disability and death. This is serious stuff. In fact, on average, people with sarcopenia have a 58% higher risk of fracture than people without it. The risk of disability is 1.5-4.6 times higher in older adults with the condition than in those who don’t have it. Again, serious stuff.

Beyond that, sarcopenia is associated with insulin resistance, increased risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, arterial stiffness, and hypertension (in non-obese men). Each of these ailments can lead to multiple other issues.


Woman who fell down, fall risk, Sarcopenia

Sarcopenia symptoms include:

  • Falling
  • Muscle weakness
  • Slow walking 
  • Self-reported muscle wasting
  • Difficulty performing normal daily activities

To confirm whether you have it, you can take the SARC-F. It’s just a short questionnaire you take on your own that’ll help your physician assess your risk for the condition. In this case, SARC-F stands for the following: 

S — Strength.

A — Assistance with walking.

R — Rising from a chair.

C — Climbing stairs.

F — Falls.

You give each factor a score between 0 and 2, with the highest maximum score being 10. A score of 4 or more means you should have more testing.

What causes it?

Several factors can play a part in sarcopenia’s development, including age-related changes and bone and joint diseases. Lifestyle also plays a role, especially inactivity and lack of exercise, or prolonged bed rest. Chronic diseases can play a factor, along with lower hormone levels. Malnourishment will also lead to a decline from low protein and calorie intake to feeding issues from cancer.

How common is it?

Woman discussing frailty with home health

Awareness of the condition is very low, though it’s common among older adults. It’s often underdiagnosed and undertreated. It was recognized as an independent condition in 2016, which now allows it to be reported by healthcare providers on medical claims. That’s helped get it on the radar for researchers to look into how to reverse and maybe even prevent it in the future. Here’s how the prevalence breaks down for the cases that have been diagnosed (keeping in mind many cases are still missed): Adults 60+ 11% in men, 9% in women in communities; 23% in men, 24% in women who are hospitalized; 51% in men, 31% in women in nursing homes. Studies on whether it impacts different ethnicities more or less are inconsistent, but it is known the rates increase in people with chronic disease. 

The likelihood is higher in older women with lower education and lower socioeconomic status. Being underweight and having a lower birth weight also increases the likelihood of sarcopenia. 

There are also different kinds of sarcopenia. Sarcopenic dysphagia is a swallowing disorder prevalent in 13 to 42% of older adult inpatients. Clinically, it leads to dehydration, malnutrition, choking, and tracheobronchial aspiration. There’s also sarcopenic obesity, which leads to poorer quality of life, longer hospitalization, greater mortality rates than individuals with healthier weights, and a 23 percent increased risk of cardiovascular diseases. 

Other costs

Beyond the toll on your health, there are financial expenses to take into account. In the U.S., individuals with sarcopenia account for about $40.4 billion in hospitalizations. And because people with the condition are nearly twice as likely to be hospitalized, on average, they end up paying $2,315 more annually on hospital stays than those with normal muscle mass and function. 

Can it be prevented?

Woman resistance training

Experts say proper nutrition and exercise are critical in preventing and slowing sarcopenia’s progression. Adults even suspected of having sarcopenia should have physical activity as part of their day, especially resistance-based strength training. Making sure you’re getting enough protein is also very important, with doctors suggesting one to 1.5 grams of protein for each kilogram of body weight. Older adults also need to make sure they have adequate calorie consumption.

Is there medication to treat it?

Currently, the simple answer is no – but that doesn’t mean it’ll stay that way. Researchers are looking into the possibility of using hormone supplements to increase muscle mass, but no FDA-approved medicines exist yet to treat sarcopenia. Patients who currently have the condition say it’s important to them to be able to stay mobile and capable of handling household tasks, so future treatments should take that into account. 

If you’re concerned that you may one day face this condition, this is the time to take a look at your lifestyle and make as many changes as possible to help prevent it.

Read Next:

Fall Prevention: Safeguard Your Body and Mind

Runner Safety: Learn How to Protect Yourself

How to Stay Safe Living Alone


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