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Muscle wastage in old age due to nerve loss, research finds

Thursday 15th March 2018
Exercise or physiotherapy promoting the continued use of leg muscles could reduce the risk of losing muscle function in later life. Image: Ljupco via iStock
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People who regularly give their muscles a workout throughout their younger and middle-aged years may be less likely to suffer from nerve damage affecting their muscle function in old age.

This is the finding of a new study carried out by scientists from Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Manchester and the University of Waterloo, Ontario who found that the natural muscle loss in the legs that occurs in many people as they get older is due to a loss of nerves.

However, those who were more athletic in their youth have a better chance of their nerves reconnecting with each other, enabling them to maintain a certain degree of strength in their legs.

This therefore demonstrates just how important regular exercise throughout life can be for years to come, and suggests that physiotherapy that focuses on strengthening the leg muscles could also be beneficial to help individuals maintain their strength, fitness and mobility in later life.

The new research, which has been published in the Journal of Physiology, saw tests carried out on 168 men to examine how nerve loss influenced their muscle function in old age.

It was found that the number of nerves controlling their legs by approximately 30 per cent by the time males reached the age of 75. In early adulthood, people typically have between 60,000 and 70,000 nerves controlling their leg movements, so this can be a significant and noticeable decline unless action is taken to keep the muscles working as much as possible.

Speaking to BBC News, Professor Jamie McPhee of Manchester Metropolitan University explained: "There was a dramatic loss of nerves controlling the muscles - a 30 to 60 per cent loss - which means they waste away.

"The muscles need to receive a proper signal from the nervous system to tell them to contract, so we can move around."
Written by Mathew Horton

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