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A new study shows that people who are heavy drinkers face an increased risk of muscle loss and frailty later in life. Stephen F Kitt Photos/Getty Images
  • A new study shows that people who drink excessive amounts of alcohol may risk losing muscle mass later in life.
  • Subjects who experienced the greatest loss in muscle mass consumed 10 or more units of alcohol per day.
  • Regular strength training can help you maintain muscle mass as you age, reducing your risk of frailty.
  • Experts recommend heavy drinkers curb their intake and limit their consumption to low or moderate drinking levels.

Growing evidence shows the harmful effects of alcohol ranging from high blood pressure and cardiovascular problems to liver disease.

Individuals who consume excessive amounts of alcohol could muscle mass as they age and increase their risk of frailty, according to a new study from researchers at the University of East Anglia.

The results were published on May 24 in Calcified Tissue International.

“We know that losing muscle as we age leads to problems with weakness and frailty, so this suggests another reason to avoid drinking high amounts of alcohol routinely in middle and early older age,” Prof. Ailsa Welch, registered dietitian and professor of nutritional epidemiology at UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said in a news release.

“Alcohol intake is a major modifiable risk factor for many diseases, so we wanted to find out more about the relationship between drinking and muscle health as we age,” Prof. Welch stated.

Researchers examined data from the UK Biobank, containing health information from 500,000 people in the UK.

The research team looked at data for approximately 200,000 people between 37 and 73 years of age. The majority of subjects were middle-aged in their 50s and 60s.

Lead researcher Jane Skinner, PhD, a statistician, epidemiologist, and lecturer at Norwich Medical School, told Medical News Today:

“The large sample size available to us from the UK Biobank Study meant we could study the whole range of alcohol consumption in a big sample of the population. This meant we could capture drinking habits well and that we got enough people at the higher ranges of consumption to be able to model the effects at these more extreme levels. That’s not usual.”

Researchers also considered factors that could affect muscle mass such as body size, protein intake amount of physical activity.

The results indicate that the people with the lowest muscle mass were consuming 10 units of alcohol or more per day.

According to researchers, 10 units of alcohol is the equivalent of drinking a bottle of wine or 4–5 pints of beer per day.

Dr. Skinner noted: “People who want to care about their muscle health can aim to ensure they only drink moderately or not at all.”

“Our results give people another reason to avoid heavy drinking, of which there are already many. Also, people can see that there is a dose response to drinking more alcohol on the amount of muscle people have,” Dr. Skinner added.

Despite the implications of the research, there were some limitations. The study demographics lacked diversity, and more long-term follow-up on the effects of heavy drinking is needed.

Skinner explained to MNT that their “main analysis was based on cross-sectional (measured at the same time) findings, so we can’t be sure of cause and effect. Also, it’s based on observational data, which is unavoidable looking at such an issue.”

“We did our best to take into account other important factors, but such adjustments can never be perfect. Although we also investigated people who were followed up over time, which provides more compelling findings, we had a much smaller sample of people who had data on follow-up. This limits our knowledge of the long-term effects of heavy drinking.”

– Jane Skinner, PhD, lead researcher

In addition, physical activity and sedentary levels weren’t measured, which may have produced a different effect on the outcome.

“[The researchers] didn’t monitor physical activity levels as opposed to sitting [and] sedentary levels, which are related but quite different constructs,” noted Matthew Stults-Kolehmainen, PhD, exercise physiologist and exercise researcher at Yale New Haven Hospital, who was not involved in the study.

Stults-Kolehmainen noted that the “consumption of alcohol and loss of muscle function and coordination is well established.”

“It comes as no surprise to me that there would also be a strong association between alcohol consumption and loss of muscle quantity and quality,” he added.

Stults-Kolehmainen noted that drinking after exercising may also delay muscle recovery, though research is mixed.

A 2019 review of 12 studies found that alcohol could affect muscle recovery only if drinking during recovery is consistent.

John Gardner,Co-Founder & CEO of the online fitness coaching platform Kickoff, explained to MNT that drinking alcohol may lead to a decrease in the production of energy for muscle cells.

“Consuming alcohol can reduce the production of one of the most vital energy sources needed for muscle cells known as adenosine triphosphate (ATP),” Gardner said.

“When you exercise or move your muscles, ATP is consumed to help the muscles contract and perform the movements during an exercise,” Gardner added. “However, when you consume alcohol, your body produces less and less ATP which heavily impacts your muscle strength.”

Muscle mass deteriorates with age. Maintaining muscle mass as you get older is important for preventing frailty and other health concerns. Here are a few trainer-approved tips to prevent muscle loss.

Get enough protein

Protein is essential in order to not only maintain muscle strength but also help rebuild and strengthen your muscles.

“When you perform strength training, you break down the muscles and need protein to fuel your muscles into repairing and growing. For each individual, the amount of protein needed on a daily basis is different,” Gardner said.

“To calculate it, you should multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36 to determine your protein intake.”

With age, the body needs better sources of protein to maintain strong muscles. That’s why it’s important to consume protein that contains all nine amino acids, Gardner explained. This includes lean meat, fish, eggs, and even plant-based sources such as quinoa and buckwheat.

Prioritize rest and recovery

“When exercising, you break down muscles and need to give it time to rest, recharge and rebuild the muscles,” Gardner stated. “That’s why when undergoing strength training, depending on the intensity of your exercise, it could take 24-72 hours for your muscles to repair.”

Gardner recommends leaving one day in between strength training to focus on different muscle groups. This allows the muscles to recover and repair.

It’s also crucial to get adequate sleep. During sleep, growth hormones are released to help your muscles repair.

Strength train 2 to 3 times a week

A consistent strength training regimen is key to keeping your muscles strong and intact as you age.

“Focus on performing strength exercises 2 to 3 times a week focusing on different muscle groups each time to give your muscles the chance to recover fully while still working them out enough to maintain healthy muscles,” Gardner said.

Current recommendations for moderate drinking are one drink per day (or less) for women and two drinks per day (or less) for men.

Lisa R. Young, PhD, a registered dietitian nutritionist, nutrition consultant, and author of “Finally Full, Finally Slim” and “The Portion Teller,” agreed that drinking in moderation is probably safe for most people.

Still, some research has shown that even low levels of alcohol consumption may be associated with health risks.

If you’re concerned you may be drinking too much, Young offered the following tips to help reduce your intake:

  • Drink only with a meal.
  • Before getting a second drink, drink a glass of water or sparkling water first.
  • Don’t keep alcohol in the house and limit drinking to when you are out.