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Adaptability of elderly human muscles and tendons to increased loading

Narici, Marco V. and Maganaris, Constantinos N. (2006) Adaptability of elderly human muscles and tendons to increased loading. Journal of anatomy, 208 (4). pp. 433-43. ISSN 0021-8782

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Abstract

Senile sarcopenia, the loss of muscle mass associated with aging, is one of the main causes of muscle weakness and reduced locomotor ability in old age. Although this condition is mainly driven by neuropathic processes, nutritional, hormonal and immunological factors, as well as a reduction in physical activity, contribute to this phenomenon. Sarcopenia alone, however, does not fully account for the observed muscle weakness, as the loss of force is greater than that accounted for by the decrease in muscle size. As a consequence, a reduction in the force per unit area, both at single fibre and at whole muscle level, is observed. We recently suggested that at whole muscle level, this reduction in intrinsic force is the result of the combined effect of changes in (1) muscle architecture, (2) tendon mechanical properties, (3) neural drive (reduced agonist and increased antagonist muscle activity) and (4) single fibre-specific tension. Whereas several studies support the role of the last two factors in the loss of intrinsic muscle force with aging, alterations in muscle architecture and in tendon mechanical properties have also been shown to contribute to the above phenomenon. Indeed, sarcopenia of the human plantarflexors, represented by a 25% reduction in muscle volume, was found to be associated with a 10% reduction in fibre fascicle length and 13% reduction in pennation angle. These architectural alterations were accompanied by a 10% decrease in tendon stiffness, attributable to alterations in tendon material properties, as suggested by a 14% decrease in Young's modulus. Most of these changes may be reversed by 14 weeks of resistive training; both fibre fascicle length and tendon stiffness were found to be increased by 10 and 64%, respectively. Surprisingly, however, training had no effect on the estimated relative length-tension properties of the muscle, indicating that the effects of greater tendon stiffness and increased fascicle length cancelled out each other. It seems that natural strategies may be in place to ensure that the relative operating range of muscle remains unaltered by changes in physical activity, in old age.

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