Research carried out at Aberdeen University could pave the way for new drugs to be developed to help combat age-related muscle loss.
Scientists have identified the genes responsible for muscle mass.
Their work could lead to new drugs being created to help prevent pensioners developing the condition, making them less susceptible to falls and bone fractures.
It is estimated that around 9,000 people are affected by age-related muscle loss in the UK alone.
The new research has been published in the American Journal of Human Genetics.
Dr Arimantas Lionikas, who led the project, said: “A decline in muscle mass and strength is a universal companion of ageing and muscle weakness is a main cause of falls and fractures in the elderly.
“Ageing-related muscle decline takes place on a backdrop of its condition in youth.
“Muscle mass can differ extensively between different individuals, however the genes that affect those differences have until now not been known. Our findings address that – and have identified some of these genes.”
He added: “This research has revealed that very many genes contribute to the differences in muscle mass and their effects can be seen in middle age and in elderly individuals.
“The next steps in our research will be to investigate whether some of these genes are suitable targets for drug development to reverse muscle loss.”
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Finding the gene has proved to be a long process. Dr Lionikas said: “I started to work on this problem about 20 years ago.
“Collection of the data that we used in this study started about 15 years ago.”
The researcher said studies in twins had shown that genes play a role in determining muscle mass in humans – however, the studies did not have the capacity to identify specific genes.
Data from the UK Biobank, an international databank of information set up to improve the prevention and treatment of serious and life-threatening illnesses, was used in the study, as well as data from the university lab.
Dr Lionikas added: “In 2006 the UK Biobank initiated screening of a large number of individuals residing in the UK.
“As a part of that effort, 500,000 people were recruited for screening of a wide range of physiological measurements that also included measurements of lean mass in arms and legs, which mainly consists of skeletal muscle.
“A detailed genetic information of each subject has also been acquired for millions of genomic markers.”