Muscle loss and loss of appetite are often believed to be common changes that occur with aging. Sadly, these aren’t necessarily normal aging symptoms and could be related to a more serious condition.
The Greeks used to refer to this condition as cachexia, which means “bad condition.” Today, we refer to it as wasting away syndrome and it is categorized by unexplained weight loss, muscle atrophy, decrease in appetite, anemia, and inflammation. Unfortunately, there aren’t many treatments available for wasting away syndrome and patients often overlook the symptoms as a normal part of aging.
What is wasting syndrome?
Wasting syndrome is a metabolic disorder that causes the muscles to deteriorate. It is often caused by an already existing health condition or a disease that triggers the body’s immune system to activate and enter a catabolic state, which means that the body turns on itself and eats itself away.
Diseases and conditions that can trigger wasting syndrome include cancer, autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, cardiac disease, infectious disease, and diabetes.
Even if you have never heard of wasting away syndrome, it is actually quite common. Wasting syndrome affects nearly five to 15 percent of chronic heart failure or COPD patients and nearly 60 to 80 percent of cancer patients.
An example of cachexia is the role that Tom Hanks played in the film Philadelphia. He begins wasting away in the movie as a result of severe HIV/AIDS. Wasting syndrome is defined as rapid weight loss of more than five percent within 12 months or less when a chronic illness is present.
Professor at the University of Missouri Kenneth Gruber explained, “Cachexia is produced by immune system cells secreting increased levels of substances called cytokines. Cytokines act on the brain to produce the elevated metabolism and decreased appetite.”
“Cachexia causes multi-organ failure. Think of elevating metabolism in the cells of your body as the equivalent of (constantly) running your car engine at high RPMs—it eventually leads to engine failure,” he continued.
For those who already suffer from a serious disease, wasting syndrome is a very dangerous condition as it increases mortality.
How to treat wasting syndrome
There is no cure for wasting syndrome, but due to the high demand for one, there is continuous research being conducted for possible treatments.
One study from the University of Iowa found promise in oregano and thyme to increase muscle mass by inducing calcium cycling, which is similar to when we exercise.
The researchers also tested a drug treatment that has shown promise for its ability to block the side effects of increased cytokines, which are responsible for wasting away syndrome.
Other important factors for treatment of wasting syndrome include lifestyle changes such as improving nutrition and targeted exercises to help maintain muscle mass.
Although wasting syndrome sounds like a scary condition, it can be prevented. By diagnosing chronic disease early on, you can continue with regular check-ups and implement the necessary lifestyle changes you need in order to preserve muscle mass.
Related: Why it’s so important to build muscle as you age