The Role of Lean Muscle Mass and Organ Reserve in Aging

There’s been a lot in the news lately about the question of longevity. This past week an article discussed the role of exercise in “biological aging,” the relative age of a person based on biomarkers (determined by telomere length in this study), rather than simple chronology.

To add to this discussion, I want to offer up a medically accepted dimension of biological aging that hasn’t gotten as much press lately. Lean muscle mass in happy tandem with organ reserve are two defining characteristics of both good health and longevity.

Have you ever heard someone say that a person died of “old age” or “natural causes”? Essentially, the person died as a result of the logical end of the aging process, the diminishment of organ reserve and corresponding muscle mass that supported his/her physical functioning.

Let’s look closer.

First, we’re talking skeletal muscle mass here, the stuff we use or lose with age. We associate muscle mass with strength and functionality, but muscle also provides metabolic reserve. Muscle produces proteins and metabolites in response to physical trauma. This response is essential to the body’s efforts to achieve recovery and resume homeostasis. With the loss of muscle mass, we lose this metabolic reservoir.

Organ reserve refers to the functional capacity of our organs to support life. When we’re young, our organs have many times the capacity that it takes to simply function. Factors that stress those organs, like illness, injury and toxicity we encounter in our environments (pesticides, etc.), test the organs, but because they have substantial reserve, don’t tax their limits. As we age, this reserve diminishes, and the organs become truly stressed by these same factors. We simply don’t bounce back the way we used to.

Now, the interesting thing is that lean muscle mass and organ reserve have a convenient correlation. Skeletal muscle mass and organ reserve, unless serious disease or trauma targets one or the other, generally tend to correspond throughout life.

The diminishment of organ reserve and lean muscle mass is somewhat genetically influenced, but as we say here at MDA time and again, the expression of your genes depends on the interaction between your genetic blueprint and your personal environment and lifestyle. This means that our efforts throughout life to build and maintain muscle mass tend to improve or retain not just muscle mass but the function of other tissue as well, including the function of vital organs like the heart, lungs, kidneys and liver. And vice-versa. It’s a widely accepted assertion that 75 percent of our health and life expectancy after age 40 is determined by environmental factors, including the impact of our daily lifestyle choices. Now there’s a reason to get off the couch.

So, what can you do to retain and even build lean muscle mass throughout your life and maintain the vitality of your organs? Let’s explore.

Prevent Inflammation
You guessed it: anti-inflammatory diet. Bad carbs! Down trans fats! Those trans fat encourage oxidative stress throughout the body. Grains and sugars not only cause inflammation, which perpetually taxes your organs, they throw off your hormone levels. And, yup, optimum hormone levels are key to 1) maintaining and building lean muscle mass and 2) supporting the functional health of the body’s organs. There’s just no getting around it. What’s healthy/unhealthy for one part of the body will be the same for the whole body. It’s the beauty of the design, I say. And it holds us accountable – without exception.

What would an MDA entry be without the requisite push for veggies, veggies, veggies. We’ll stump for fruits as well. Anti-oxidants and nutrients galore now will mean compound interest later. Every cell in your body, not to mention your older, future self, will thank you for the investment.

Get Protein!
A study at University of Texas at Galveston had us all cheering over its findings that older people have the same capacity as their younger counterparts for converting protein-rich food into muscle. Older men and women in this country, countless nutrition studies suggest, eat less protein than the average person. At the time of life when protein plays a more essential role than ever, older men and women typically reduce their protein intake. Take this as the perfect incentive to belly up to the barbeque!

Take Omega-3 Supplements (from fish oil)
While we’re on the subject of protein, omega-3s from fish oil in particular can enhance the above conversion process of food protein to muscle protein. This finding is good news for young and old alike.

Furthermore, omega-3s reduce inflammation and thin the blood, which puts less stress on the heart and other organs. The less stress we put on the organs, the longer they are able to maintain their vitality.

Limit Exposure to Toxins
You’ve heard me spout off about the importance of organic foods, and there’s good reason (and science) behind these concerns. Yet I also understand (in part through the great comments left by you, our MDA community) that organics aren’t always available and, if they are, are often cost-prohibitive. If you’re able to do organics, go for it. But rest assured that even if you can’t, a healthy produce-rich diet has plenty of protective factors of its own.

Additionally, toxins in food are only a small part of the picture. Give you liver, among other organs, a break and take the time to use protective gear when working on the house or when dealing with toxins in the workplace. Look for small ways to limit unnecessary exposure to chemicals in your day to day life (e.g. install a water filter, etc.).

Exercise-Moderately, Please!
We can’t possibly say this enough: we’re talking about lots of moderate activity coupled with short spurts of high energy output, anaerobic activity. (See my entries on sprints for some ideas.) Nothing beats weight-bearing anaerobic activity for building muscle mass.

You’ve likely heard me say it before: endless cardio isn’t your friend. Chronic, high level training raises cortisol levels, which can deplete muscle and taxes the body’s organs and immune function that support them. If you’re talking about maintaining and building lean muscle mass and supporting the vitality of your organs, rethink the cardio craze you see around you at the gym.

So, now we turn it over to our good readers. Your comments, observations, questions? Thanks for your contributions, and be well!

independentman, 416style Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

Dear Mark: Pondering Protein

Dumb Little Man: Top 5 Muscle Tips for a Buff Body

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TAGS:  Aging

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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