Doctors should include muscle mass as vital sign, researchers say

ABBOTT PARK, III — It’s standard protocol for doctors to check a patient’s heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, and weight at the start of a visit. But is that enough to give them a true sense of a person’s overall health? A team of researchers is now making the case for muscle mass to be considered a vital sign for health care practitioners to check, in addition to the others.

After reviewing 140 studies connecting muscle mass to various health outcomes and conditions, the researchers say that people with less muscle have worsened physical functioning, poorer quality of life, and an overall lower survival rate, particularly when dealing with chronic ailments.

“Muscle mass should be looked at as a new vital sign,” argues Carla Prado, an associate professor at the University of Alberta and principal author of the paper, in a statement. “If healthcare professionals identify and treat low muscle mass, they can significantly improve their patients’ health outcomes. Fortunately, advances in technology are making it easier for practitioners to measure muscle mass.”

Among their findings, Prado points to research showing that breast cancer patients with greater muscle mass are 60 percent more likely to beat the deadly disease. Similarly, stronger patients in a hospital’s intensive care unit have a higher survival rate, require less time on a ventilator, and are more likely to be discharged sooner. Low muscle mass is also linked to a greater risk of complications during and after surgery.

Other studies show a correlation between poorer muscle mass and the severity of Alzheimer’s disease in patients.

Researchers also point out that body mass index (BMI) is often used by doctors as a health predictor, but the measurement can be flawed. That’s because it doesn’t take into account whether muscle mass or fat mass accounts more for a person’s weight. So a person’s BMI may appear to be healthy, when in fact it’s actually masking a person’s unhealthy level of muscle.

“Muscle may be skin deep, but it should be top of mind based on the growing body of science,” adds co-author Suzette Pereira, a research scientist for health care company Abbott Laboratories. “Something as simple as the firmness of a person’s handshake can give a lot of insight into their overall health, and it’s never too late to rebuild muscle with good nutrition, including protein, and proper exercise.”

The full research review was published online September 12, 2018 in the journal Annals of Medicine.