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A person works out

A visit last week from my old friend Leo offered a reminder of what aging can do to the body. The curvature of his spine prevents him from standing up straight, so the weight of his head propels him forward as he shuffles down the hall to the elevator — stairs are out of the question. Unable to walk the two blocks to the café, he insists we ride together in his car. After our lunch, he struggles to rise from his chair; I help him pull on his jacket. This is what frailty looks like.

Leo is only 76, nine years my senior, but it seems as if the years have aged him prematurely. Most of the septuagenarians I know get around more adeptly than he does, but I also know that aging plays no favorites. If we live long enough, we’re all subject to its indignities. We’ll grow slower, weaker, and less steady.

Or will we?

A team of British and Canadian researchers earlier this month published a report explaining how changes in the aging nervous system produce sarcopenia, or muscle loss, a condition that affects as many as one in five seniors. Building muscle mass, they suggest, may slow the process.

We typically lose 30 to 50 percent of the nerves controlling our leg muscles by the time we reach 75, a disconnect from the nervous system that reduces their mass and eventually renders them useless. But senior author Jamie McPhee, PhD, and his colleagues at Manchester Metropolitan University found that older adults who have built greater muscle mass through strength training were less likely to be afflicted in this way. Nerves attached to these muscles were able to branch out and rescue some of the muscle fibers that had become detached.

“Our challenge now is to find ways to increase the success of nerve branching to rescue detached muscle fibers and thereby reduce the numbers of older people in our neighborhoods with low muscle mass,” he said in a statement. “They are at higher risk of social isolation, falling, bone fracture, disability, and hospital admission.”

I suspect that, despite the risks, Leo is not much inclined to take up kettlebell training at this point; he’s more of a cerebral guy than a gym rat. But there’s plenty of research indicating that it’s never too late to start building muscle. Who knows? A little resistance work and maybe he could walk that two blocks to the restaurant.

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