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This Eating Habit Can Lead to Muscle Loss as You Age, New Study Says

Good nutrition is crucial for healthy aging, as this new research proves.

Regularly skimping on nutrients can not only wreak havoc on numerous systems like your heart, brain, and gut, but it can also lead to muscle loss as you age, according to a new study in Scientific Reports.

That's a big deal because muscle mass already naturally declines as you get older. When that's accelerated, the condition is called sarcopenia and raises major health risks, including the loss of mobility.

In the study, researchers looked at 1,211 participants over age 65 in Singapore. They found that there were several factors that contribute to lower muscle mass, including socio-economic status and underlying chronic diseases, but that poor nutritional intake was especially notable. This may be due, in part, to what's called "anorexia of aging," or a loss of appetite that results in decreased food consumption. When this happens, older people may not be getting the nutrients they need, which means fast muscle mass loss could soon follow.

Related: The Best Anti-Aging Diets, According to Science

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Maintaining your muscle mass through strategies like regular exercise and eating nutrient-dense foods can not only help your overall function, it may even boost your chance of living longer. According to a study in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, muscles mass loss may be related to earlier mortality.

Researchers studied a group of 839 men and women over the age of 65 for about four years, recording their body composition with bone density scanning over time. They looked at "appendicular muscle mass," meaning the arms and legs, as well as subcutaneous fat and visceral fat.

The results showed that women with low appendicular mass were 63 times more likely to die early compared to those with more arm and leg muscle mass. Men with low appendicular mass were 11 times more likely to be at risk for early mortality.

"Muscle mass plays a key role in stabilization for the hips and shoulders," says lead researcher Rosa Maria Rodrigues Pereira, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Sao Paulo's Medical School in Brazil. "When you lose that stability and there's a fall, low bone mineral density means you're at higher risk of a fracture."

In terms of the significant difference between men and women, Pereira suggests that menopause-related hormone changes may play a part. As estrogen plummets, it can have a negative effect on muscle mass, leading to muscle loss, as well as less decreased bone density and more belly fat.

But sarcopenia isn't inevitable, she adds, and can even be reversed by lifestyle habits like exercise, not smoking, and eating nutrient-rich foods. That advice isn't just for those in midlife and older, either—the earlier you start, the more muscle mass you preserve as you age.

For tips on what foods you should be eating to maintain your muscle mass, check out The Best Foods for Stronger Muscles After 50, Dietitian Says. And for more nutrition advice, sign up for our newsletter!

Elizabeth Millard
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer specializing in health, fitness, and nutrition. Read more about Elizabeth