Topic: College of Applied Sciences and Technology

September 12, 2008

A new Ball State University study finds that people are able to build up their muscles through resistance training — and fight off debilitating effects of old age — until they reach 80.

An examination of six men in their 80s found that while the group did get somewhat stronger, whole muscle size and fiber size, including both fast- and slow-twitch muscle fibers, did not grow during a 12-week period of strength training, said Scott Trappe, director of Ball State's Human Performance Laboratory

"Losing fast-twitch muscle fibers reduces our ability to produce explosive movements that allow us to move our feet or adjust our arms in order to keep from falling," he said. "Once these fast-twitch fibers are gone or reduced in size, it is harder to balance and, therefore, maintain an independent life.

"What is more alarming is that loss of muscle fiber was not confined to just fast-twitch muscle groups, but the slow-twitch muscles as well. These types of muscles are large muscles found in the legs, thigh, trunk, back and hips and are used for holding posture."

Instead of allowing the body to slowly lose its muscle mass and strength, Trappe urges people to "pack on the muscle" while they still have time.

"We know that there is accelerated muscle loss as we get older," he said. "The best way to keep our muscles from shrinking is through resistance training, which allows our body to maintain muscle size and strength as we go through our 60s and 70s."

Trappe believes his research, sponsored by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, may lead to a line of defense in helping America's senior citizens live more productive lives.

Projections from the 2000 census predict that by the year 2020 there will be more than 54 million Americans over the age of 65 and 7 million over the age of 85. This represents a 54 percent increase in the U.S. population over 65 and a 70 percent increase in individuals over 85.

Recent estimates for U.S. health care costs directly attributed to sarcopenia, which is the degenerative loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength, are in excess of $26 billion. Indirectly, the debilitating effects of sarcopenia have contributed to a doubling of home health care and nursing home expenditures, reaching $132 billion annually.

The economic impact on society and strain on resources resulting from sarcopenia-related issues are substantial, Trappe said.

HPL researchers have been examining the positive impact of exercise has on the aging process for the past two decades, ranging from resistance training among senior citizens to tracking the running habits of America's top master athletes who compete in distance competitions.

Trappe believes his study is just the beginning of an in-depth examination of how "very old" people suffer from sarcopenia and what can be done to slow down or reverse the process.

"At this point, I would advise people to actively engage in some sort of resistance training once they hit their 60s," he said. "From our study, once you hit the threshold of 80, that may not be possible."