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For older adults, strength training may keep hospitalizations at bay

July 30, 2009 | 12:25 pm

Exercise isn't just for the young, and staying in shape becomes even more critical as we age. Although health experts have been hammering this into our heads for years, some people still need more proof. So here it is.

Hto5zykf A new study found that older people who have less strength, lower muscle density and overall poor physical function are at greater risk for being hospitalized than their stronger, more fit counterparts. The key seemed to be having more muscle density, a measure of fat versus lean tissue in the muscle.

Researchers followed 3,011 healthy adults age 70 to 80 from the Health, Aging and Body Composition Study for an average of 4.7 years. The participants were tested for grip strength, knee extension strength, lean mass, walking speed, and the pace at which they could stand from a sitting position.

During the course of the study, 55.7% of participants were hospitalized one or more times. Those in the lowest quartile for muscle density were more likely to be hospitalized compared with those in the highest quartile. Researchers found that even among healthy older adults who had no disabilities, poor physical function was linked with a higher risk of hospitalization, and lean muscle mass alone was not as critical as strength, function, specific force, and muscle density.

Around middle age, people typically lose about 1% of muscle mass a year -- not a huge amount, but it adds up over time. Hitting the weights regularly can offset this loss, called sarcopenia, and improve function and quality of life.

"Interventions to improve muscle strength and physical performance might not only reduce future disability," wrote the authors, "but might also reduce the large economic burden associated with hospitalization should poor muscle strength and function be causally related to subsequent hospitalizations." The study appears in the August issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

-- Jeannine Stein

Photo credit: Carlos Chavez / Los Angeles Times