Muscle protective systems could reduce frailty in old age

March 8, 2018, The Physiological Society
Credit: The Physiological Society

New research published today helps explain why people experience muscle loss in old age, increasing the prospects of reversing the condition in the future.

As people grow older, their leg muscles become progressively smaller and weaker, leading to frailty and disability. While this process inevitably affects everyone living long enough, until now the process has not been understood. This new research, published in the Journal of Physiology, suggests that wasting follows on from changes in the nervous system. By the age of 75, individuals typically have around 30 to 50 percent fewer nerves controlling their legs. This leaves parts of their muscles disconnected from the nervous system, making them functionally useless and so they waste away.

However, healthy muscles have a form of protection, in that surviving nerves can send out new branches to rescue some, but not all, of the detached . This protective mechanism is most successful in older adults with large, healthy muscles. When the internal is not successful and nerves are unable to send out new branches, it can result in extensive . This can result in a condition called Sarcopenia, which affects an estimated 10-20 percent of people aged over 65 years.

The researchers do not yet understand why the connections between muscles and nerves remain healthy in some people and not in others. The race is now on to use this new knowledge to delay old-age weakness by either slowing the decline or by increasing the success of nerve branching to rescue detached muscle fibres.

The research carried out by Manchester Metropolitan University in conjunction with University of Waterloo, Ontario, and The University of Manchester, involved using MRI to gain a detailed look at the , followed by enhanced electromyography to record the electrical activity passing through the muscle to estimate the numbers and the size of surviving nerves available to rescue muscle fibres.

The researchers are currently looking at whether regular exercise in middle- and older-age slows the process of muscles becoming disconnected from the nervous system, or improves the success of nerve branching to rescue detached muscle fibres. The goal is to identify the best type of exercise—strength training or endurance—and to understand the physiology of why the nerve-muscle changes occur as we get older.

Professor Jamie McPhee, the senior author on the research, commented on the significance of the findings:

"Our challenge now is to find ways to increase the success of branching to rescue detached muscle fibres and thereby reduce the numbers of in our neighbourhoods with low muscle mass and . Right now in Europe there are at least 10 million older people with low muscle mass, which is a medical condition known as sarcopenia. They are at higher risk of social isolation, falling, bone fracture, disability and hospital admission. Weakness makes them particularly vulnerable to falls in bad weather, as we've had in recent weeks. Our research helps to explain why muscles decline with advancing age and this new knowledge will help in the search for effective countermeasures."

Dr. Mathew Piasecki, the study lead author who has since taken up a position at the University of Nottingham, said:

"One of the earliest attempts at research similar to ours showed results from a small group of older people who apparently had just a couple of surviving nerves feeding into a foot muscle. When we started out with our research we were very sceptical of the old data and thought it was an anomaly of out-dated testing procedures. However, now that we have tested a couple of hundred men we think the early observation was probably correct. We have also observed some very old muscles with just a few dozen nerves left, where young and healthy adults have hundreds."

Explore further: Muscle regeneration compromises stability in muscular dystrophy

More information: Failure to expand the motor unit size to compensate for declining motor unit numbers distinguishes sarcopenic from non-sarcopenic from non-sarcopenic older men, Journal of Physiology (2018). DOI: 10.1113/JP275520 , onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1113/JP275520/full

Related Stories

Muscle regeneration compromises stability in muscular dystrophy

March 1, 2018
A new study finds that muscle fibers in Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) split during regeneration to such an extreme that the muscle is weakened beyond repair. The article is published ahead of print in the American Journal ...

New clues to muscle wasting in elderly people

February 24, 2012
Permanent disconnection between nerves and muscles may be the reason behind progressive loss of muscle mass and function in elderly people, Perth-based researchers have found.

Higher inflammation in old age is linked to weaker strength and lower muscle mass

January 22, 2018
Older people with higher levels of chronic inflammation are likely to have weaker muscles and lower muscle mass, according to a new study carried out at the University of Southampton.

Research uncovers mechanism, protective purpose of muscle soreness following exercise

February 14, 2017
New research from the University of Queensland has revealed the way human muscles recover after fatigue.

Impact of inactivity on muscles more severe for older people

January 5, 2018
According to a recent study published in The Journal of Physiology, researchers have been able to document for the first time how the same period of inactivity has a greater and more severe impact on the muscle power of the ...

Poorer health influences muscle strength in later life

November 16, 2017
Older people with poorer health are more likely to have weaker muscles and experience a decline in muscle strength more quickly than their healthier peers, according to a new study carried out at the University of Southampton.

Recommended for you

LincRNAs identified in human fat tissue

June 21, 2018
A large team of researchers from the U.S. and China has succeeded in identifying a number of RNA fragments found in human fat tissue. In their paper published in the journal Science Translational Medicine the group describes ...

Scientists solve the case of the missing subplate, with wide implications for brain science

June 21, 2018
The disappearance of an entire brain region should be cause for concern. Yet, for decades scientists have calmly maintained that one brain area, the subplate, simply vanishes during the course of human development. Recently, ...

Key molecule of aging discovered

June 21, 2018
Every cell and every organism ages sooner or later. But why is this so? Scientists at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg have now discovered for the first time a protein that represents a central switching point ...

Compound made inside human body stops viruses from replicating

June 20, 2018
The newest antiviral drugs could take advantage of a compound made not by humans, but inside them. A team of researchers has identified the mode of action of viperin, a naturally occurring enzyme in humans and other mammals ...

Research reveals zero proof probiotics can ease your anxiety

June 20, 2018
If you're expecting probiotics to reduce your anxiety, it might be time to put down that yogurt spoon—or supplement bottle—and call a professional instead.

Long-term estrogen therapy changes microbial activity in the gut, study finds

June 20, 2018
Long-term therapy with estrogen and bazedoxifene alters the microbial composition and activity in the gut, affecting how estrogen is metabolized, a new study in mice found.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.