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Every decade after the age of 30, most men and women lose between 3 and 9 percent of their total muscle mass. The shoulders are not as broad. We don't stand as tall even if bones are intact. Jawlines sag and bellies bulge, even if we do not gain weight

Muscle Mass Gradually Disappears After 30

But the implications of lost muscle mass are more serious than just our blouse and pants sizes.

Muscles burn calories. When we lose muscle mass and we continue eating the same amount of food, we gain weight and we gain it as fat. Extra belly fat "strangles" internal organs and increases risk of diabetes, hypertension, and certain kinds of cancer.

Muscles are vulnerable to protein deprivation. When disease or injury make it impossible to eat for a few days to a few weeks, the body strips amino acids out of muscle. The smaller the muscle mass it can work with, the more devastating and permanent the muscle injury.

Smaller muscles are weaker muscles, and weaker muscles lead to more frequent injuries. Shrinking muscle mass occurs about the same time as bones begin to weaken, especially in women, leading to more fractures and breaks.

After the age of 70, most people lose 1% of their muscle mass each year. Even worse, after 70, most people lose 3% of their muscle strength each year. Fat infiltrates the muscles, and even when people diet to lose belly fat and fat under the skin, fat infiltration into muscle continues to increase. That is because as the body ages, it burns carbohydrate more efficiently than it burns fat, especially in people who have type 2 diabetes.

Most people don't develop fat and flabby muscles because they eat too much. Total food consumption almost always goes down as people get older, due to changes in family life (fewer meals with others), loss of the ability to smell or taste food, problems with teeth, and difficulty maintaining a kitchen. The decrease in the number of calories the body burns, however, is even greater than the decrease in the number of calories consumed, so nearly all aging adults gain weight.

A 30-year-old who weighs 75 kilos (165 pounds) might need 1650 calories a day just to maintain basal metabolic function. A 70-year-old who weighs 75 kilos might need only 1350 calories a day for basal metabolic function. The 30-year-old may burn 900 calories a day through physical activity, the 70-year-old, just 400. Even if they weigh the same, the 70-year-old will have three times as much body fat and 30% more fat inside muscle tissue.

Eight kilos (about 18 pounds) of muscle will have been transformed into fat. In men over 40, fat cells, especially the fat cells in the buttocks, transform testosterone into estrogen. In women who have passed menopause, fat cells create just enough estrogen to fuel growth of tumors and cancer but not enough for smooth skin and intimate lubrication. Fortunately, there are five simple steps for preventing loss of muscle mass in aging.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Johannsen DL, Ravussin E. Obesity in the elderly: is faulty metabolism to blame? Aging health. 2010 Apr 1, 6(2):159-167.