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Old age inevitably comes with dysfunction and deterioration of the muscle and the fat tissues. Some people over 60, however, are frailer than others. Now, researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University have found exactly how old age makes people experience muscle loss, providing hope that there might be a way to reverse the condition in the future.
Jamie McPhee, a Professor of musculoskeletal physiology at Manchester Metropolitan University, and his colleagues learned that muscle atrophy follows changes in the nervous system. The typical 75-year-old has 30 to 50 fewer nerves controlling their legs, for instance. Because parts of these muscles are now disconnected from the nervous system, they are functionally useless and naturally wither away.
However, there would be even more atrophied muscles were it not for an internal protection mechanism that our bodies employ. Essentially, intact nerves can branch out to connect some, but not all, of the detached muscle fibers. This mechanism is the most successful in elderly individuals that have large, healthy muscles. On the flipside, when this mechanism is not working very well, excessive muscle loss follows. In some cases, the researchers found that some very old muscles only had a few dozen nerves left, where young and healthy adults have hundreds.
Researchers first measured muscle mass in 200 men with MRI – that was the easy part. However, what proved challenging was finding the right technique that enabled the researchers to separate muscles into their constituent smaller segments, known as “motor units”. Each such unit as a single motor nerve connects hundreds of individual muscle fibers. They eventually settled for enhanced electromyography, which enabled the researchers to record the electrical activity passing through the muscle to estimate…
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