Energy metabolism in muscles of active seniors almost on par with young people

Muscles of elderly people who exercise regularly display almost the same metabolism as those of young people, according to a joint study on aging in muscle tissues by scientists from Maastricht University (UM) and Amsterdam UMC. The researchers have demonstrated for the first time in humans that one particular substance is present to a lesser extent in older muscles, and less fit older people have even lower levels of this molecule. Elderly people with a very active lifestyle, on the other hand, have just as much of the substance as young people do. The research suggests that people can largely reverse the aging of their muscles through an active lifestyle. The findings are published today in the scientific journal Nature Aging.


It was already known that changes in the metabolism of body cells influence the aging process. For this study, the researchers from Maastricht and Amsterdam established the key metabolic differences relating to healthy, normal and impaired aging in muscle tissues. They found that the main difference between healthy and impaired aging is the level of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD⁺), which is significantly lower in the muscles of older adults. The NAD⁺ molecule plays a crucial role in the longevity of laboratory animals, but its association with aging in human muscles has not previously been demonstrated. ‘We have known for some time that poorly functioning mitochondria contribute to the aging process,’ says Amsterdam researcher Riekelt Houtkooper. ‘Our new research shows the metabolic changes that underlie aging in humans in much greater detail.’

Energy metabolism

Central to the study of the aging process in muscle tissues are mitochondria. These are the energy factories of our body cells, in which nutrients are converted into energy, and for which NAD⁺ is essential. The researchers found that older individuals with very active lifestyles have NAD⁺ levels in their muscles that are nearly the same as those of younger people. This discovery suggests that most age-related changes in muscles can be reversed through an active lifestyle. ‘The functioning of mitochondria can be improved by regular exercise, even when we are older,’ says UM researcher Joris Hoeks. ‘Less fit older people could also benefit from nutritional supplements to increase NAD⁺ levels. A combination of both might be the most effective, but further research is needed to establish this.’

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