Why Muscles Matter As We Age


Jan 08, 2015 by James

In general, human beings lose 30% of their muscle strength between the ages of 50 and 70, and a considerable number of people lose strength to the extent that it compromises their mobility and/or their ability to live an independent life. Furthermore, loss of muscle power is associated with falls and injuries, so clearly it is ideal for everybody to keep their muscles working as well as possible.

A study from Germany suggests that resistance training may be a key to extending the powers of youth. Having studied the effects of progressive strength (resistance) training on adults over 60, academics from the University of Potsdam concluded that regular resistance training not only increased muscle strength but also reduced muscle atrophy, enhanced the function of tendons and strengthened bones, too. As might be expected, this enhanced physical ability was linked with a reduction in falls and injuries. However, the authors report that in Germany, just 10-15% of older people practice resistance training, so it seems that a publicity drive may be in order.

Previous research, from the US, had also concluded that strength training could be of great benefit to older adults, but pointed out that as the body ages, the volume of exercise required to get results increased. In other words, a 60-year-old woman would have to work out more often than younger gym-goers, to achieve the same muscular results. However, the benefits of resistance training in older folk, which include improved aerobic capacity and metabolism and better joint and bone health, as well as muscle tone, may very well make the effort worthwhile.

Another 2014 study, this time from researchers based at Coventry University, also looked at muscle function in later life, and drew the interesting conclusion that older people may do well to add a latte, cappuccino or macchiato to their workout.

It has long been known that for people in their physical prime, the ingestion of caffeine helps muscles to generate more force. However, until recently, nobody had really asked whether caffeine had the same effect on muscles that were naturally changing because of age. Sports scientists at Coventry University took on that challenge, and found that although the effects of caffeine were less pronounced in older muscles, they were nonetheless detectable, and that therefore caffeine intake may well help older people to maximise the benefits of strength training. Interestingly, the effects of caffeine were least noticeable of all in very young, developing muscles.

The Coventry scientists thus concluded that caffeine may have a part to play in maintaining muscle strength in later life, although only as an addition to the physical exercise of the type examined in the German and American studies of resistance training. They stress the importance to older adults of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and in particular of undertaking regular exercise, in order to maintain muscle tone and strength and thus prolong the ability to live an active, satisfying and independent life.