We talk a lot about maintaining muscle as we age. Decreasing muscle mass can cause a host of problems in the elderly, leading to fragility, falls, and an overall decrease in quality of life. Unfortunately, muscle mass losses are common in older adults, to the point that 10-20% of the population over the age of 65 suffers from a condition called sarcopenia, the medical term for low muscle mass. While we know that muscle does decline with age, new research has revealed that it might not only be the muscle tissue itself causing the problem. Another bodily system is implicated as well.
Researchers from The Physiological Society have been investigating the connection between the muscular system and the nervous system. What they’ve found is rather startling: by age 75, many people typically have 30 to 50% fewer nerves controlling their legs. The parts of the muscle that aren’t connected to the nervous system are essentially useless, so they deteriorate.
It’s possible for the nerves that survive to keep forming new branches that reattach to the disconnected muscle. But this works best when the muscles were large and healthy to begin with. The researchers aren’t sure yet why nerves and muscles become more disconnected more quickly in some people than in others. But it does seem that having strong muscles to begin with helps to maintain the connection.
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The researchers, who published their findings in the Journal of Physiology, studied muscle tissue using electromyography. They wanted to get a sense of the electrical activity passing from the nerves to the muscle to investigate this relationship further. They now want to investigate what types of exercises are best for keeping the connection between nerves and muscles strong.
Of course, while maintaining strong nerve-muscle connections is clearly important, regardless of the outcome of their future studies, both strength training and endurance training are essential to various aspects of your health. So don’t think you’ll eventually get a free pass on one. We know that exercise is vital to maintaining strength with age, and this research helps explain why: exercise is what helps you get those large, healthy muscles that new nerve branches can more easily connect to.
Yours for better health,
Frank Shallenberger, MD