What happens to our skeletal muscles as we age, and what are the potential impacts of those changes on our functional mobility?
CWU Clinical Physiology Professor Jared Dickinson and his students have been seeking answers to these questions, and many others, through a series of research projects examining the impacts aging and exercise have on muscle health. These studies include assessment of the size and strength of the muscle, as well as changes within muscle at the molecular level using very small muscle samples obtained from study participants.
Over the past two years, researchers have been working with two cohorts—one in their 20s; the other in their 60s and 70s—to study what happens to human leg muscles as people age.
“As we get older, our muscles shrink and we’re not as strong,” Dickinson said. “The goal of this research is to better understand what contributes to that, and what we can do to slow that process down so we can preserve functional mobility and still perform our daily activities.”
By analyzing tissue samples at the molecular level, the researchers hope to identify what factors may contribute to the difference between muscles of younger and older individuals. (Samples obtained in collaboration, but not on campus. The CWU team generates all of the data.)
The researchers are also looking at the response of the muscle of older adults to various exercises, in particularly different forms of aerobic exercise. The team is especially interested in introducing high-intensity exercise to the equation to study which movements may help delay muscle deterioration.
Dickinson noted that, at the molecular level, both aerobic (i.e., cycling) and anaerobic (i.e., weightlifting) exercise have been shown to contribute to increased muscle volume.
“We want to see if there is anything in the muscle-wasting process that we can exploit through exercise,” he said. “Our goal is to preserve the function of muscle tissue as we get older, and we’re looking at the role of exercise intensity in tailoring protective strategies for older adults. Such strategies could benefit both the muscle as well as the cardiorespiratory system.”
As the research has evolved, so have the methods of data collection. The team recently started using ultrasound as a non-invasive way of monitoring muscle size and muscle quality in younger and older subjects.
“Ultrasound is now helping us learn more about the structure and function of muscles through aging,” Dickinson said. “As we continue to compare the muscles of younger and older people, we’re trying to develop that methodology as another tool we can use to monitor the health of skeletal muscles as we get older.”