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Age-Related Fat May Impair Muscle Function

A new Harvard study finds age-related fat and lower muscle density could worsen balance, possibly increase risk of falls

A new study, led by researchers at Harvard Medical School and Hebrew SeniorLife, published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolismfound that age-related accumulation of abdominal fat is associated with lower muscle density.

Low muscle density means that the muscle has more fat in it, which can lead to less effective muscle function that in turn may lead to more falls. According to the study, individuals with the greatest 6-year accumulation of visceral adipose tissue (VAT), found in the abdomen, had significantly lower muscle density.

This research is the first large, longitudinal study of the association between changes in VAT and muscle density.

“Most obesity research has focused on metabolic and cardiovascular outcomes such as diabetes, hyperlipidemia, hypertension, coronary heart disease, and osteoarthritis. But there is considerably less consensus on the role of obesity on the risk for low muscle mass or muscle density,” said lead author Ching-Ti Liu of the Boston University School of Public Health, and senior author Douglas Kiel, HMS professor of medicine and director of the Musculoskeletal Research Center at Hebrew SeniorLife.

The study found that VAT may represent a modifiable risk factor for poor musculoskeletal outcomes with aging.

“The study adds important new information to public health efforts to reverse the trend of the growing obesity problem in the United States and worldwide,” the authors said. “Fat that accumulates in the abdomen, sometimes referred to as the ‘male pattern,’ was shown to produce less dense muscle surrounding the spine, resulting in less effective muscle function.”

This story was originally published by Harvard Medical School on February 3,2023.