Frailty in the elderly: contributions of sarcopenia and visceral protein depletion

Metabolism. 2003 Oct;52(10 Suppl 2):22-6. doi: 10.1016/s0026-0495(03)00297-x.


In any given population of free-living individuals 65 years of age and older, a substantial proportion (in the range of 6% to 25%) suffers from many of the elements of the syndrome of frailty. Although the syndrome is complex and still lacks a standard definition, there is a growing consensus about the signs and symptoms as well as the pattern of biological correlates that characterize this disorder. Patients who are afflicted with frailty typically exhibit loss of muscle strength, fatigue easily, are physically inactive, and have a slow-and often unsteady-gait, with an increased risk (and fear) of falling. They are likely to have a poor appetite and to have undergone a recent, unintentional loss of weight. Frail individuals are more likely than the nonfrail to experience impaired cognition and depression. They die sooner. Frailty, of course, is frequently complicated by a variety of coexistent illnesses. Among the biological correlates of frailty are sarcopenia (now readily measurable by dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry [DXA]), osteopenia (with an increased susceptibility to fracture), and activation of the inflammatory and coagulation systems, with a rise in inflammatory cytokines and several markers of coagulopathy. Age-dependent changes in a number of hormones also appear to promote the development of frailty in the elderly, particularly via their effects on muscle mass and strength, bone density, and by contributing to activation of the catabolic cytokines. In particular, serum levels of growth hormone (GH) and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) decline progressively during aging, and an association between reduction in the levels of these hormones and the involution of advancing age has been proposed. It is not yet known whether, in comparison with their nonfrail counterparts, frail individuals consistently manifest larger reductions in GH and IGF-1 (and other anabolic hormones). More research is needed before it will be known whether the benefits of administering GH to the frail elderly will outweigh the disadvantages. The poor appetite and weight loss that occur in many frail individuals are likely to be accompanied by a degree of visceral protein depletion (with its attendant morbidity), which can be estimated by making serial measurements of indicators of visceral protein status such as transthyretin (TTR), retinol-binding protein (RBP), and albumin. One characteristic of the frailty syndrome that distinguishes it from the effects of aging per se is the potential reversibility of many of its features. Progressive resistance training is feasible for many elderly individuals-even the oldest old-and, by increasing muscle mass and strength, can ameliorate or reverse important aspects of physical frailty. To the extent that visceral protein depletion has been caused by an inadequate intake of calories and protein, consumption of a more adequate diet can result in betterment of the frail patient's nutritional status, as determined by clinical improvement and favorable changes in TTR, RBP, and albumin.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Frail Elderly*
  • Humans
  • Muscular Atrophy / epidemiology
  • Muscular Atrophy / physiopathology*
  • Prevalence
  • Proteins*
  • Viscera*


  • Proteins