“Sarcopenia — it’s a complicated name for something that we already know about,” says registered dietician Noreen Roche.
While it is normal to lose some muscle mass due to ageing, sarcopenia is characterised by a severe decline in muscle mass and mass, having a major impact on quality of life. Before you decide that this doesn’t apply to you, it’s important to realise that these physical changes can start as early as the age of 40. Ageing is, after all, a lifelong process.
Roche notes that “sarcopenia has been recognised for quite a while in the older age group, the over 60s, but we are now recognising that it can start from age 40, or younger. It is important that younger people get information about muscle loss as we get older as it has a lot of implications for how we age well”.
The large-scale, nationally representative Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA), notes that one in five people in Ireland will be 65 years or older by 2030, with the greatest increase of people being in the over-80 category. Life expectancy is increasing but making sure that health and independence is maintained during those extra years is a challenge. Sarcopenia can cause falls, functional impairment and disability. It is never too late — or too early — to work on maintaining muscle mass and strength as we age, to improve our overall life quality as well as warding off sarcopenia
According to Roche, there are two key things to keep in mind:
- Exercise, especially exercise leading to good muscle contraction. ie resistance exercise.
For example, walking is good, but walking up the stairs is even better. Roche also recommends incorporating simple movement into daily life: eg gardening and pulling at things; hoovering; carrying a bag of shopping in from the car; lifting a bottle of water while brushing your teeth.
- Nutrition: our protein requirements increase as we get older and protein has a key role to play in maintaining muscle strength.
Last year the Food Safety Authority released updated recommendations for older adults, citing the need for a “more protein-dense diet to prevent frailty” and reiterating that “the combination of a dietary pattern that provides adequate protein and physical activity is required from middle age in order to prevent sarcopenia and frailty in older adulthood”.
Proteins are the building blocks of the body, stimulating muscle tissue to grow and strengthen. There are 20 amino acids in proteins, nine of which are essential and need to be incorporated into the diet. High-quality protein from animal sources — the top five of which are tinned tuna, beef, chicken, tinned sardines and eggs — contain all nine of these essential amino acids while plant-based foods such as lentils, beans and peanuts are classified as lower-quality protein as they have less essential amino acids.
Proteins that contain the essential amino acid leucine are of particular importance for the formation of lean, healthy muscle tissue. Tinned tuna is one of the richest sources of both protein and leucine and Donegal-based, family-owned Shines Seafood produces the best in the country. They are the only company in the world to preserve wild Irish albacore tuna in olive oil — a product awarded an Irish Food Writers’ Guild Food Award 2018.
Tinned sardines also punch above their weight when it comes to both protein and leucine.
Roche notes that the best way to consume protein is not all at once: “The traditional way of eating it was to have a lot of protein with one meal but now we know that the key to triggering muscle growth is to spread protein out throughout the day in smaller amounts.”
The Food Safety Authority of Ireland recommends that high-quality protein foods should be eaten at least twice a day and Roche says that breakfast and lunch are ideal times to increase intake: tinned fish can be a ‘practical snack’ or lunch, while it is also a good idea to incorporate eggs into breakfast meals.
Roche is adamant that we need to start looking at muscle strength from an early age, adding better amounts of high-quality protein foods to the diet for people aged over 40 and incorporating resistance exercise into daily activity.
1. Tuna, canned in sunflower oil
2. Beef, sirloin steak, grilled — salt-aged steak boxes can be ordered from jameswhelanbutchers.com
3. Chicken, breast, grilled — get free-range chicken from thevillagebutcher.ie
4. Sardines, canned in sunflower oil
5. Eggs, boiled — order organic, pasture-range eggs at magnersfarm.com
Plant-based protein-rich foods that are a source of leucine
1. Red split lentils
2. Red kidney beans
3. Peanuts, dry roasted
* Source: Report of the Scientific Committee of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland