Muscle Weakness in Elderly
Caring for an elderly patient can feel overwhelming - and navigating their health conditions might feel like a challenge. If you find yourself as the CDS caregiver for a patient with muscle weakness, there are a few things you can learn about sarcopenia treatment and care that will help you protect your patient.
What is Sarcopenia?
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the U.S. National Library of Medicine, sarcopenia is “a condition characterized by loss of skeletal muscle mass and function." This is an age-related disease caused by an imbalance between signals for muscle cell growth and signals for muscle cell teardown, which leads to muscle degeneration.
Sarcopenia, to some extent, is a natural consequence of aging. It impacts about ten percent of adults over the age of fifty.
Around age thirty, physically inactive people begin to lose muscle mass – on average, three to five percent each decade. Physical activity does slow this progression, but people of all activity levels will lose some muscle mass.
Sarcopenia most typically begins to speed up around age seventy-five but may happen as early as age sixty-five or as late as age eighty. In extreme cases, pain from sarcopenia causes physical disability and poor quality of life. When not properly treated, it can cause death.
Sarcopenia is due primarily to aging, but other factors also contribute to the speed of muscle degeneration.
What Causes Muscle Weakness in the Elderly?
Immobility and sedentary lifestyles play a significant role in the onset and progression of sarcopenia. Disuse of muscle is one of the strongest triggers of the condition. Failing to exercise muscles increases weakness in them and makes muscle loss occur more quickly.
Be cautious when a patient is placed on bed rest or immobilization due to illness or injuries, as these practices can lead to rapid muscle loss. Even two to three weeks of lowered activity levels (including walking and regular activity) can reduce muscle mass and lead to overall strength declines.
The longer that a patient is immobile, the weaker muscles become. This makes it harder to return to everyday lifestyles so that they may become more sedentary. This, in turn, will lead to further muscle degeneration and more overall weakness. You, as a caregiver, should always take steps to encourage more active lifestyles and keep patients out of this ongoing cycle.
Poor choices in diet can bring on and accelerate sarcopenia. This is because a lack of calories and proteins leads to weight loss and diminishing muscle mass. Aging adults experience various symptoms that may impact their diets and consumption, such as changes in the sense of taste, problems with the teeth or gums, and increased difficulty in activities like shopping or cooking.
You can help to slow the progression of your patient’s muscle degeneration by ensuring they follow a healthy diet. This should include twenty to thirty grams of protein consumed at every meal.
Injuries, illnesses, and chronic conditions can cause inflammation that sends signals throughout the body. These signals will tell the body to destroy and rebuild damaged areas and cells. This can fuel sarcopenia. If the body eliminates damaged groups of cells, then it cannot heal them.
Your patient may have a condition such as arthritis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, lupus, or vasculitis that causes chronic inflammation. If this is the case, you should pay special attention to your patient’s strength and muscle mass, as it could decline quickly due to that inflammation.
Stress on the body is believed to contribute to sarcopenia. Many patients that suffer from chronic liver diseases or heart failure develop muscle degeneration and overall weakness. If a patient has any condition that increases stress on the body or has undergone high-stress treatments such as chemotherapy, they are at greater risk for sarcopenia.
Now you know what might cause or contribute to sarcopenia, but do you know how to spot it?
Symptoms of Muscle Weakness
It can be tricky to catch the signs of muscle weakness, but it is essential to pay attention and take action if you believe sarcopenia may be impacting your patient. Any sign of lessened muscle strength could point to the condition, so be vigilant - but there are some common early warnings to look out for in particular.
If you see your patient struggle to lift familiar items, look into it—the sudden inability to lift items that a patient could lift before points to the weakening of muscles. Likewise, if you notice general weakness in the patient, it could be indicative of sarcopenia.
Sudden weight loss without a change in diet can alert caregivers to muscle weakening. It is crucial to monitor the energy levels of elderly patients, as sarcopenia can manifest in their behavior as an overall loss of energy, slowed pace, or disinterest in activities – especially physical ones.
These symptoms will directly impact a patient's quality of life. Careful attention will let you maintain their quality of life, as sarcopenia and its symptoms can be reduced or reversed with the proper treatment.
How to Reverse Sarcopenia?
Is it possible to reverse a condition that degenerates an elderly patient’s muscles? You will likely never help the patient regain the strength they had in their twenties, but you can help fight the worsening of sarcopenia – and maybe even rebuild some of their lost muscle.
Exercise and Keeping Muscles Active
Resistance Training and Weightlifting
Resistance training is any exercise that challenges the muscle by forcing it to work against some form of resistance. This could be the resistance of lifting a weight, the resistance of pulling against a band, or the resistance of moving the body upward against the pull of gravity.
Resistance exercises put tension on muscle fibers – this is why you feel sore after a workout. That tension also causes the body to release growth signals. These signals combined with the growth-promoting hormone also released during resistance exercises tell the body to build muscles, increasing strength.
The combined signals activate the synthesis of new proteins and activate satellite cells (muscle stem cells) during this process. Resistance exercise is the most effective way to prevent muscle loss and build new muscle – thanks to these reactions.
Any exercise that impacts overall fitness can positively contribute to fighting sarcopenia. Activities like hiking, cycling, or jogging should be paired with resistance and flexibility training for maximum impact.
Fitness training alone has not been proven to build muscle and reverse sarcopenia, but it can help control it by maintaining current muscle.
If your patient can walk, you can work toward reversing their muscle weakness. This simple activity can be done in any location. Walking keeps the legs and arms moving and involves many core muscles for balance.
By walking regularly, patients may be able to maintain their current muscle tone. By working toward walking further each day, they may strengthen muscles and reverse sarcopenia or minimize its symptoms.
Regular exercise has some serious power for combatting sarcopenia and general muscle weakness. However, you won't see results unless your patient is following a diet that contains all of the necessary pieces for muscle-building by the body.
Foods That Build Muscles
Muscle loss is accelerated by the lack of certain items we get from food – like calories, protein, and vitamins and minerals. Helping a patient identify ways to increase their intake of these muscle-building blocks is vital to seeing results like regained strength.
It is well known that protein is a vital ingredient to building muscle – that's why bodybuilders consume it in shakes, bars, cookies, and meats. Protein can signal to the muscle that it is time to build.
The problem with protein is that older bodies need more of it! Muscles become more and more resistant as time goes on, so protein intake must increase to maintain muscle mass.
If your patient has a hard time eating meat or getting enough protein from foods, look for non-traditional sources. A nutritionist may help you identify a good protein supplement that can be added to the patient's existing daily routine.
Vitamin D is a factor in sarcopenia, but there has not been enough research to identify the reason behind the link between muscle weakness and Vitamin D deficiencies. Some doctors believe that a vitamin D supplement can help increase muscle strength and lower the risk of falls.
Our livers naturally produce this protein, which contributes to muscle growth. While humans produce enough to keep from becoming deficient, additional creatine from diet or supplements has been shown to enhance the benefits of regular exercise.
Ensuring a patient has high enough intakes of protein, creatine, and vitamin D may make a big difference in their rate of decline or improvement – particularly when paired with exercise.
How a CDS Caregiver Can Help Patients with Muscle Weakness
A caregiver can make a massive difference in the health and quality of life of an elderly adult battling sarcopenia. Proper care can make the condition much more manageable and even reverse it in some cases.
The most important thing you can do as a caregiver is get informed. By learning more about muscle weakness and sarcopenia, you can better empathize with and assist your patient. Consider consulting physicians, websites, organizations, other caregivers, and patients to learn more about what it's like to live with muscle weakness and how to treat the condition.
The next step is to pay attention. Caregivers may be able to spot symptoms of muscle degeneration in its early stages. Be looking for sudden weakness, weight loss, or changes in energy or interests. If you notice any of these, have the patient see a physician immediately to see if it might be sarcopenia.
Treat Muscle Weakness
If your patient is diagnosed with muscle weakness, you can help to counteract or, in some cases, even reverse the effects. Work with your patient to create an exercise regimen to work the muscles and encourage regrowth. Review their diet and ensure that they are getting all of the essential proteins, vitamins, and minerals needed to repair damaged muscle cells. Then check in regularly to be sure the patient is still following these plans!
Create a Friendly Environment
When muscle weakness is severe, you may want to alter the patient’s environment to make it more friendly for their body and strength levels. This might involve making sure things are accessible on the ground floor if a patient is too weak to climb stairs, adding shower chairs and other accessibility products to the home, or widening walkways to accommodate walkers or wheelchairs. Help the patient obtain any tools they may need to compensate for weak muscles, such as canes.
Loss of bodily function, such as the inability to walk or lift things, can be challenging for a patient to deal with. Often, elderly patients with health conditions may feel like a burden to those around them! Always treat the patient with respect, and make it known that you want to help them and that they and their physical weaknesses are of no inconvenience to you.
Friendly words can make a huge difference to patients who can no longer move around the world as they used to and may feel trapped or isolated. Being a kind and caring friend has more impact than you might think.
It may be scary to learn that your patient is facing sarcopenia or muscle degeneration related to age as a caregiver. While the condition does create unique challenges, it is very manageable and may even be treatable. By learning about the condition, factors that cause it, and how to help treat it, you can contribute to a greater quality of life for your patient.