Mobile and fit in old age

Biomedical experts at FAU look for new treatments to prevent muscle loss in senior citizens

As we get older, strength and co-ordination skills deteriorate, our sense of balance disappears and falls become more common. It is commonly believed that this physical degeneration process is inevitable and irreversible. Over the next five years, the European research consortium SPRINTT, which includes a working group led by Prof. Dr. Cornel Sieber from FAU’s Institute for Biomedicine of Ageing (IBA), aims to show that this is not the case and that there are many possible preventative measures. SPRINTT has received a total of 48 million euros in funding, 1.4 million of which is allocated to the FAU sub-project.

We all want to be mobile and have an active social life in our old age but many older people are reliant on help from other people. Frailty and muscle loss are the main causes for a loss of autonomy and decrease in quality of life. As frailty increases the risk of disease and falls this often means that people require inpatient treatment and could eventually lead to full time care. There are currently no generally recognised methods for treating age-related degeneration. ‘However, we have initial scientific evidence that mobility can be maintained for a long time, for example through targeted movement programmes,’ says Dr. Ellen Freiberger from IBA.

Thresholds for muscle loss

In principle, everyone knows that regular movement and exercise keep you fit, but the level at which this is put into practice is particularly low among older people. ‘This is why we want to work on ensuring that older people do not simply accept their decreasing mobility as an inevitable fate,’ says Prof. Dr. Sieber. ‘General practitioners play a key role here. They have a high level of authority and can encourage their patients to do something for their stamina and mobility.’ The first step towards supporting doctors with this task would be to determine a clear medical definition of muscle loss. It would then also be possible to make an appropriate diagnosis which could be followed by targeted forms of treatment. This is why one of the goals of the researchers involved in SPRINTT is to determine thresholds which clearly show when a loss of muscle mass requires medical treatment.

Looking for genetic factors

‘We’re not just looking at muscle mass,’ explains Ellen Freiberger. ‘Muscle function is at least equally important. There are people who never had strong muscles but whose co-ordination – their ability to control their muscles – is fantastic.’ For this reason, a combination of factors should be used to define the thresholds. The biomedical experts also measure hand strength, walking speed and sense of balance. Furthermore, it is currently unclear whether genetic factors have an effect. The participants in the study will therefore also have blood samples taken in order for the researchers to look for potential genetic markers which may provide clues about how a loss of mobility starts and progresses in old age.

Movement programme for over 70s

A total of 1500 people in eight European countries will take part in the study, including 100 from Nuremberg and the surrounding area. The target group is made up of participants who are over 70 years of age and still mobile but have noticed that they are showing initial signs of motor impairment. Typical signs include problems climbing stairs, decreasing speed or a lack of stamina when walking. The participants will be given intensive support over a period of two years. For example, they will take part in targeted movement programmes. At the same time, changes in physical functions will be measured exactly and the resulting data will then be evaluated statistically along with the data from the groups in the other countries. ‘At the end of the project in five years’ time, we will have an evidence-based definition of muscle loss and frailty,’ says Prof. Sieber. ‘This means that we will be on the way to finding an effective, standardised form of treatment which will preserve mobility in old age.’

1.4 million euros for the FAU institute

The project has received a total of 48 million euros in funding for a period of five years. Half of this funding has been provided by the European Commission and will be used by university institutes and public research institutions, while the other half has been provided by the participating companies, which are members of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA), in the form of staff and equipment. The sub-projects being led by IBA at FAU have been allocated 1.4 million euros in funding.

Further information:

Prof. Dr. Cornel Sieber
Phone: +49 911 530296150

PD Dr. Ellen Freiberger
Phone: +49 911 530296162

Addition information