Exp Gerontol. 2021 Jul 2:111465. Epub 2021 Jul 2. PMID: 34224847
Neuroprotective effects of exercise on the aging human neuromuscular system.
Human biological aging from maturity to senescence is associated with a gradual loss of muscle mass and neuromuscular function. It is not until very old age (>80 years) however, that these changes often manifest into functional impairments. A driving factor underlying the age-related loss of muscle mass and function is the reduction in the number and quality of motor units (MUs). A MU consists of a single motoneuron, located either in the spinal cord or the brain stem, and all of the muscle fibres it innervates via its peripheral axon. Throughout the adult lifespan, MUs are slowly, but progressively lost. The compensatory process of collateral reinnervation attempts to recapture orphaned muscle fibres following the death of a motoneuron. Whereas this process helps mitigate loss of muscle mass during the latter decades of adult aging, the neuromuscular system has fewer and larger MUs, which have lower quality connections between the axon terminal and innervated muscle fibres. Whether this process of MU death and degradation can be attenuated with habitual physical activity has been a challenging question of great interest. This review focuses on age-related alterations of the human neuromuscular system, with an emphasis on the MU, and presents findings on the potential protective effects of lifelong physical activity. Although there is some discrepancy across studies of masters athletes, if one considers all experimental limitations as well as the available literature in animals, there is compelling evidence of a protective effect of chronic physical training on human MUs. Our tenet is that high-levels of physical activity can mitigate the natural trajectory of loss of quantity and quality of MUs in old age.