Strength training is an important safeguard against muscle loss in later life, and recent studies suggest that maintaining muscle mass may also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. While muscle loss can begin around the age of 30,[i] physical inactivity and metabolic changes can accelerate the rate of muscle mass decline in later life. If left unchecked, it can lead to a condition called sarcopenia, largely characterized by physical impairment and functional decline to the point of disability.[i]
A New York Times article highlights the interconnected pathways through which muscle health affects cardiovascular health. The findings underscore the value of maintaining (and building) muscle mass through middle age as a means of preventing heart disease in later life by as much as 81% among male participants studied.
The article points to the need for early non-pharmacological measures in order to promote cardiovascular health. A low risk and high reward option to preventing muscle mass decline is ensuring strength training is part of a regular exercise regimen, in order to maintain and build muscle mass beginning in middle age and into later life.
Although the general benefits of exercise towards healthy ageing are far from novel, advances in research techniques are allowing scientists to explain the metabolic links associated with muscle composition and cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk. On one hand, skeletal muscle has been shown to play a role in insulin regulation, which is significant when considering the association of CVD with insulin resistance.[i] On another hand, CVD-associated inflammatory markers are inversely related to skeletal muscle mass, indicating that higher muscle mass is linked to reduced inflammation.[i]
Increasing muscle mass can not only reduce CVD risk, but also enable older individuals to maintain the intrinsic capacity (IC) to fulfill daily activities. As described by the World Health Organization (WHO) in their 2015 World Report on Ageing and Health, IC is comprised of an individual’s physical and mental attributes. Though genetics play a role, life course behaviours and social environment are much more powerful influences on the changes in IC observed in older age. These measures are strong predictors of positive outcomes when compared to traditional disease-focused assessments. Good practices in creating positive environments for active and healthy ageing can be found in the WHO’s Global Network for Age-Friendly Cities and Communities.
A shift towards a more holistic health focus on person-centred functional ability may be possible by bringing awareness to the impact of non-pharmacological preventive interventions, such as strength training to retain muscle mass. To learn more about sarcopenia, CVD, and functional ability, contact IFA Experts Dr. Manuel Carrageta, President of the Portuguese Society of Geriatrics and Gerontology; Dr. Mark S. Lachs, Professor of Medicine and Co-Chief of the Division of Geriatrics and Gerontology at Cornell University’s Weill Medical College; or Prof. Alan J. Sinclair, Director of the Foundation for Diabetes Research in Older People.
In addition, consider registering for the IFA 15th Global Conference on Ageing, now accepting abstracts related to preserving muscle mass in older age under the conference sub-theme “Enabling Functional Ability.”
 Tyrovolas, S.,. (2020). Skeletal muscle mass in relation to 10 year cardiovascular disease incidence among middle aged and older adults: the ATTICA study. J Epidemiol Community Health, 74, 26-31.
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