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In vivo physiological cross-sectional area and specific force are reduced in the gastrocnemius of elderly men

Morse, Christopher I. and Thom, Jeanette M. and Reeves, Neil D. and Birch, Karen M. and Narici, Marco V. (2005) In vivo physiological cross-sectional area and specific force are reduced in the gastrocnemius of elderly men. Journal of applied physiology, 99 (3). pp. 1050-5. ISSN 8750-7587

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Abstract

Sarcopenia and muscle weakness are well-known consequences of aging. The aim of the present study was to ascertain whether a decrease in fascicle force (Ff) could be accounted for entirely by muscle atrophy. In vivo physiological cross-sectional area (PCSA) and specific force (Ff/PCSA) of the lateral head of the gastrocnemius (GL) muscle were assessed in a group of elderly men [EM, aged 73.8 yr (SD 3.5), height 173.4 cm (SD 4.4), weight 78.4 kg (SD 8.3); means (SD)] and for comparison in a group of young men [YM, aged 25.3 yr (SD 4.4), height 176.4 cm (SD 7.7), weight 79.1 kg (SD 11.9)]. GL muscle volume (Vol) and Achilles tendon moment arm length were evaluated using magnetic resonance imaging. Pennation angle and fiber fascicle length (Lf) were measured using B-mode ultrasonography during isometric maximum voluntary contraction of the plantar flexors. PCSA was estimated as Vol/Lf. GL Ff was calculated by dividing Achilles tendon force by the cosine of theta, during the interpolation of a supramaximal doublet, and accounting for antagonist activation level (assessed using EMG), Achilles tendon moment arm length, and the relative PCSA of the GL within the plantar flexor group. Voluntary activation of the plantar flexors was lower in the EM than in the YM (86 vs. 98%, respectively, P < 0.05). Compared with the YM, plantar flexor maximal voluntary contraction torque and Ff of the EM were lower by 47 and 40%, respectively (P < 0.01). Both Vol and PCSA were smaller in the EM by 28% (P < 0.01) and 16% (P < 0.05), respectively. Also, pennation angle was 12% smaller in the EM, whereas there was no significant difference in Lf between the YM and EM. After accounting for differences in agonists and antagonists activation, the Ff/PCSA of the EM was 30% lower than that of the YM (P < 0.01). These findings demonstrate that the loss of muscle strength with aging may be explained not only by a reduction in voluntary drive to the muscle, but mostly by a decrease in intrinsic muscle force. This phenomenon may possibly be due to a reduction in single-fiber specific tension.

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