NIHS-led research sheds new light on the causes of muscle wasting in old age

Lausanne, Switzerland – March 30, 2016. Physical function declines with age but loss of muscle mass and strength becomes debilitating in up to 20% of people aged 65+, in a medical condition called sarcopenia.

Sarcopenia leads to loss of independence, reduced quality of life and, in extreme cases, premature death. As life expectancy increases, the challenges associated with sarcopenia represent a growing healthcare and health-economics issue for society.

We do not fully understand which of the many different and complex factors associated with sarcopenia play a causal role, and there are currently a limited number of options to manage the condition (primarily exercise and healthy eating). Most nutritional strategies aim to target such muscle wasting by stimulating protein synthesis and reducing inflammation. But research led by the Nestlé Institute of Health Sciences and Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK now suggests that a wider range of strategies might be needed to achieve a more effective outcome.

The results of the research were published today in Aging, the scientific journal with the highest impact factor in the field. Among the findings, the researchers discovered that not all muscles decline to the same extent during ageing. The leg muscles, for example, are generally affected more than those in the arm. By comparing the molecular and cellular mechanisms in these muscles in relation to their likelihood to suffer age-related decline, they established that preserving neuromuscular function (ie the communication between brain, spinal cord and muscles through nerves) protects the elderly from muscle wasting. They also demonstrated that cholesterol metabolism is impaired in the nerves that stimulate those muscles likely to suffer age-related loss of mass and strength. Discovering a way to reverse that process could help prevent such physical decline.

“Through our research, we have demonstrated the need to stimulate neuromuscular function to efficiently manage sarcopenia”, explains Jerome Feige, who led the research for NIHS. “Exercise and physical activity offer one approach, but this latest research opens up possibilities for innovative nutritional strategies to treat the condition.”

NIHS researchers are currently involved in a number of workstreams to better understand what causes sarcopenia. These latest findings will be investigated further in the search for alternative nutritional approaches to reduce and even reverse the effects of this debilitating condition.

Exploring the mechanics of sarcopenia

In some ways, our body is like a car – when one part breaks down, it can severely impair the way we function as a whole.

Skeletal muscles can be thought of as the engines of our body, and neuromuscular junctions correspond to the spark plugs responsible for igniting those engines.

This latest research shows that, in those muscles sensitive to loss of mass and strength, these spark plugs become disconnected and fail to ignite with age. Fixing these connections is key to restoring muscle function.

NIHS is currently working on different nutritional strategies for frail elderly patients or those at high risk by identifying specific deficiencies and investigating micronutrients which can specifically target the various physiological functions altered in aged muscles, and get those spark plugs working again!

About NIHS:

NIHS is a biomedical research institute, part of Nestlé’s global R&D network, dedicated to fundamental research aimed at understanding health and disease and developing science-based, targeted nutritional solutions for the maintenance of health. To achieve its aim, NIHS employs state-of-the-art technologies and biological models to characterise health and disease with a holistic and integrated approach. The ultimate goal of the Institute is to develop knowledge that can empower people to better maintain their health through nutritional approaches, especially in relation to their molecular profile and lifestyle status.


Pannérec, A., Springer, M., Migliavacca, E., Ireland, A., Piasecki, M., Karaz, S., Jacot, G., Métairon, S., Danenberg, E., Raymond, F., Descombes, P., McPhee, J.S. & Feige, J.N. (2016). A robust neuromuscular system protects rat and human skeletal muscle from sarcopenia. Aging, 2016 March 24, 8 (3), 1-18

For enquiries please contact:
Laura Camurri, Communications, NIHS
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