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Keywords:

  • aging;
  • body composition;
  • computed tomography;
  • fat infiltration;
  • functional status;
  • human;
  • obesity;
  • race;
  • sarcopenia;
  • skeletal muscle

OBJECTIVES: The loss of muscle mass with aging, or sarcopenia, is hypothesized to be associated with the deterioration of physical function. Our aim was to determine whether low leg muscle mass and greater fat infiltration in the muscle were associated with poor lower extremity performance (LEP).

DESIGN: A cross-sectional study, using baseline data of the Health, Aging and Body Composition study (1997/98).

SETTING: Medicare beneficiaries residing in ZIP codes from the metropolitan areas surrounding Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Memphis, Tennessee.

PARTICIPANTS: Three thousand seventy-five well-functioning black and white men and women aged 70 to 79.

MEASUREMENTS: Two timed tests (6-meter walk and repeated chair stands) were used to measure LEP. Muscle cross-sectional area and muscle tissue attenuation (indicative of fat infiltration) were obtained from computed tomography scans at the midthigh. Body fat was assessed using dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry.

RESULTS: Blacks had greater muscle mass and poorer LEP than whites. Black women had greater fat infiltration into the muscle than white women. After adjustment for clinic site, age, height, and total body fat, smaller muscle area was associated with poorer LEP in all four race-gender groups. (Regression coefficients, expressed per standard deviation (±55 cm2) of muscle area, were 0.658 and 0.519 in white and black men and 0.547 and 0.435 in white and black women, respectively, P < .01.) In addition, reduced muscle attenuation—indicative of greater fat infiltration into the muscle—was associated with poorer LEP, independent of total body fat and muscle area. (Regression coefficients per standard deviation (= 7 Hounsfield Units) of muscle attenuation were 0.292 and 0.224 in white and black men, and 0.193 and 0.159 in white and black women, respectively, P < .05). The most important body composition components related to LEP were muscle area in men and total body fat in women. Results were similar after additional adjustment for lifestyle factors and health status. No interactions between race and muscle area (P> .7) or between race and muscle attenuation (P> .2) were observed.

CONCLUSION: Smaller midthigh muscle area and greater fat infiltration in the muscle are associated with poorer LEP in well-functioning older men and women.