A recent large scale follow up study in Europe suggests that how much muscle you have now indicates how healthy your heart will be later.
It concluded that, at least for men, entering middle age with plenty of muscle lowers the subsequent risk of developing heart disease by as much as 81 per cent. This adds to the growing evidence that maintaining muscle is essential for healthy ageing, especially for men.
See the original study or read what the Sydney Morning Herald and New York Times had to say about it below (abridged).
“Muscle provides our bodies with the strength and power we need to grasp, reach, lift and stride. Muscle is also critical for our metabolic health, utilising and storing blood sugar and producing specialised hormones that move to other tissues, like the brain and fat cells, where they jump-start various biochemical processes.
But our muscle mass almost invariably declines as we grow older, with the loss often starting when we are in our 30s or early 40s and accelerating as we pass through midlife. Severe muscle loss, known as sarcopenia, is associated with frailty and other medical conditions in the elderly, along with loss of independence and premature death.
For the original study, an international group of scientists interested in muscle health and sarcopenia enrolled several thousand participants, bringing them to a clinic for extensive medical exams and lifestyle questionnaires. None of the participants, who ranged in age from early adulthood to retirement age, had cardiovascular disease when they entered the study.
The authors of the new study now zeroed in on the men and women who were at least 45 years old at that second check-in. They wound up with records for 1019 people, most of them past the age of 55, meaning they had been in their 40s when they joined the study.
Using information from these participants' original medical tests, the scientists calculated each person's overall muscle mass and then looked at whether he or she had developed heart disease by the time of the second clinic visit, about 10 years later.
It turned out that more than a quarter of them had. In fact, almost 27 per cent of the participants now had heart disease, with the incidence about six times higher among the men than the women.
And people's muscle mass at the study's start was linked to their chances of heart disease now. Those people with the most muscle then were the least likely to have heart disease now.
That association remained significant when the scientists controlled for people's diet, education and physical activity, but not when they looked at gender. Women's muscle mass was not associated with later risks for heart disease, in large part because so few of the women had developed heart disease. In general, women tend to get heart disease about 10 years later than men. But for men, having relatively large amounts of muscle early in middle age dropped the risk of heart disease later by 81 per cent, the researchers determined.
It’s important to note that the study does not show that having plenty of muscle directly staves off heart disease, only that the two are related. It also cannot tell us just how muscle helps to protect the heart, but the authors suspect that the metabolic effects of the tissue, which include better blood-sugar control and less inflammation, are likely to contribute. Plus, well-muscled people also tend to be more active than others, and maintaining an active lifestyle helps to protect the heart.
But the overall message of the findings is that:
muscle-mass preservation, through physical exercise and an active lifestyle, is probably key to protecting middle-aged hearts, especially for men
This provides another compelling reason to stay active and to maintain muscle mass."