As we age, muscle mass naturally declines and it becomes more challenging to maintain it. The medical term for this condition is sarcopenia; it can be seen in older adults who appear frail, thin, and have muscles that are not well defined. It takes a well-planned effort to overcome sarcopenia; consuming adequate protein, strength training and exercise are some of the most beneficial steps to take. It sounds simple, but for seniors, there are challenges such as poor appetite, loss of taste buds, poor cognition, joint pain, loss of mobility or range of motion, and even depression, all which make it difficult to conquer sarcopenia.
Maintaining muscle strength is also important for bone health because loss of balance can lead to falls and subsequent fractures. If sarcopenia progresses too far, it may become impossible to live independently. As the US population ages, the issue of preventing sarcopenia becomes increasingly important for helping to keep seniors independent and healthy.
Protein is important for building muscles, but sometimes seniors fail to consume adequate amounts. A recent review of research was conducted to determine if protein supplementation helps prevent sarcopenia. They reviewed 39 previously published studies on the topic of maintaining muscle mass. The studies included seniors living in a variety of settings, including hospitals, long term care, and living independently in the community. The researchers evaluated the effect of consuming protein or essential amino acids (the nutrients which make up protein) to help improve fat-free mass (muscles), muscle strength, and general physical function. They found that overall, supplementation of protein or essential amino acids was beneficial to seniors to help improve the muscle parameters they were tracking. The results were especially dramatic for the seniors who started off as undernourished.
This is good news for people over 60; sarcopenia can indeed be prevented simply by taking a few purposeful steps. Protein is key to building muscle mass and it can be obtained through foods- particularly meat and fish, but also eggs, legumes, and by combining beans and brown rice. Protein can also be supplemented with protein powders, which are available from a variety of sources, including whey, hemp, peas, rice and soy. New technologies have made protein powders more palatable, and they can easily be mixed into a smoothie or yogurt. There is a wide variety of protein powders and you may find that one form of protein is more digestible than others. For example, if you are avoiding dairy, which is whey, you may find that pea, soy or rice protein is better. Experiment to see what works best for your constitution.
It’s smart to be aware of protein intake at any age, but how much protein does your body need? The answer is based on your age, weight and activity level. It’s generally around 50 grams for the average adult, but to get an accurate number, you can use this handy protein calculator.