- - Tuesday, November 8, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Public health officials have decided to take a muscular approach to fighting a condition that’s not widely known, but has reached epidemic proportions among seniors — sarcopenia.

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) formally recognized sarcopenia, which robs people of their muscle mass and strength as they age, as a “reportable condition” — one that doctors can officially diagnose in their patients.

The CDC’s move may not sound like much more than an administrative one. But it’s an important step in the drive to raise awareness among patients, caregivers, doctors and researchers about this condition — and to create comprehensive standards for diagnosing and treating it.

This will help seniors live fully as they age — on their terms, in their homes, independently.

Even though sarcopenia is only newly “reportable,” research has shown it is already prevalent among seniors. It afflicts nearly one in three people over the age of 60 — and more than half of those over age 80.

People start losing lean body mass well before they hit retirement. Starting at age 40, adults can lose up to 8 percent of their muscle mass every decade.

At first, this progression is slow. But as adults age, the process accelerates. When lean muscle mass shrinks to a certain level, a diagnosis of sarcopenia is the result. Similar to osteoporosis, this is not a condition we can ignore.

The condition can drastically inhibit seniors’ ability to take care of themselves. Without sufficient muscle mass to support the body’s weight or move freely, everyday activities like walking to the grocery store or visiting family and friends can prove challenging.

Such activities are also more likely result in a fall — potentially one that leaves seniors with broken bones. In some cases, sarcopenia can even strip seniors of their independence by forcing them to seek home health care assistance or nursing home care.

Advanced muscle loss doesn’t just inhibit daily living. It is also associated with serious medical complications. Because the condition can disrupt metabolic functions, a patient afflicted with it may have trouble processing insulin properly — and thus may develop diabetes. By diminishing overall strength, sarcopenia can even hinder a person’s ability to fight chronic diseases such as cancer.

These health problems are costly. Every year, the nation’s sarcopenia tab runs nearly $19 billion — about $900 for every person in the United States.

The CDC’s decision will help reduce these costs. Doctors can now look for sarcopenia’s warning signs — and recommend further treatment if they suspect the patient may have developed the condition.

The clinical data generated by doctors reporting their diagnoses of sarcopenia will also allow health researchers to gauge proliferation of the condition and help understand the most effective strategies for addressing it.

But there’s more to be done. Public health officials must ensure that doctors know exactly what to look for. That means formulating clear guidelines for diagnosis — and standard courses of action for treatment.

Among those guidelines will have to be an assessment for malnutrition, which accelerates the onset of muscle loss, especially among seniors.

Many seniors don’t get enough of the nutrients they need to maintain muscle strength, especially protein. In a recent study, 30 percent of women over age 65 didn’t consume the current recommended amount of protein.

Yet research has shown that globally the majority of patients are not being routinely screened for malnutrition risk. Doctors will not be able to effectively diagnose sarcopenia if they don’t examine patients for signs of one of its primary risk factors.

Seniors deserve the chance to spend their 60s, 70s and beyond living healthy, full lives. Unfortunately, sarcopenia can prevent them from doing so.

With its formal recognition of the condition, the CDC has stated that it sees sarcopenia as a unique threat to seniors’ well-being and a burden to our health care system. Now it’s time for health care providers, patients and their families to do the same.

Hakim Bouzamondo, a physician, is divisional vice president of global research and development at Abbott Laboratories.

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