This month, a new study was published in the Journals of Gerontology which has been cited as the first research venture to unequivocally demonstrate the importance of nutritional intake in relation to muscle and bone mass, and the conditions often associated with the loss of such. The loss of muscle and bone density is considered to be a very normal part of the ageing process, and a reduction of one percent of bone and muscle mass per year is standard. However, in cases where muscle and bone mass drops very rapidly, or when density is reduced to a point where the individual becomes very frail, injury and poor health could result. The first of its kind, this new study focuses upon the importance of protein in the diet, which it claims could counteract common issues associated with frailty in the elderly.
Osteoporosis in the elderly
The loss of bone and muscle mass amongst older people is known medically as sarcopenia, and it occurs even in healthy adults. It is a normal part of ageing, but that doesn't mean that it's without its risks. While sarcopenia isn't 100 percent understood within the medical field, it is generally attributed to lower activity levels in the elderly, when compared to their younger counterparts. Muscles rip and tear constantly when placed under the pressure of physical exercise, and they're healed by satellite cells which are attracted to areas of injury and essentially fuse the muscle back together, helping to maintain an overall mass. When physical activity slows during the ageing process, satellite cells are rarely needed for healing, and eventually the body becomes incapable of activating these cells in times when they are required. This increases the speed with which muscle mass and bone density is lost, which can contribute to osteoporosis - a common complaint most notable amongst older women.
Osteoporosis is described as a significant loss of bone density, and while the loss itself isn't particularly troublesome, it can increase the risk of injury, make injuries more severe, and elongate healing times. The NHS reports that more than 300,000 people per year see a medical professional for osteoporosis-related injuries such as falls. The risk of osteoporosis is increased through heavy smoking and drinking, inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, certain medications, and hormonal changes, which is why more women are believed to suffer with osteoporosis than men. Many sufferers feel more confident using mobility aids in their home such as stairlifts and grab rails, to reduce the chance of falling and tripping.
Before this new study was published, dietary changes as a preventative measure for osteoporosis and other related conditions had been gently touched upon, but only really in terms of calcium and Vitamin D, both of which have long been associated with bone health. There has been very limited research conducted looking specifically at other types of nutrients and their potential benefits for the elderly in relation to bone density and muscle mass. The idea of greater protein intake as a preventative measure is a relatively new concept, with a study published as recently as 2004 even claiming that a link between diet and osteoporosis is tenuous, with findings too insufficient to state one way or another that nutrition does or does not provide benefits.
Video explaining what osteoporosis is (video source: Arthritis Research UK)
Revolutionary new study
Published in August 2014, this new study is truly revolutionary, and is considered to be a stepping stone towards better management of bone and muscle loss amongst the elderly population. The study found that participants who ingested greater quantities of protein were less likely to suffer the adverse effects of sarcopenia, and suggests that boosted protein intake could be used as a preventative measure for conditions such as osteoporosis. The study bases its findings partly upon the high energy supplied through protein which not only encourages the elderly to be more active, but also makes it easier to do so. This increase in physical activity can contribute to a sustained muscle mass through the continued activation of satellite cells.
The current recommended daily allowance, or RDA, for protein is 45 grams per day for women, and 55 grams per day for men, but these figures may not be enough for the elderly to see an effect in terms of bone density and muscle mass. In the study, the best results were seen in participants who consumed more than 1.2g/kg/day. The average body weight in the UK is 70kg, which would mean that, to see the benefits of protein, an average 11 stone adult should be consuming 84 grams of protein per day - almost twice the current RDA for women.
The RDA for protein in the United States is slightly higher than in the UK, so why is the UK figure so low? It is thought that fears of a protein overdose are still rife in the country following media reports as recently as March 2014 which claimed that a high protein diet is 'as bad for health as smoking'. Just one day after the nation was educated about the reality of protein overdoses, the NHS attempted to clear up the confusion, stating that the results of the study which indicated that high protein diets were dangerous to health had been grossly misinterpreted and, as with most things, it is simply a case of everything in moderation. While protein toxicity does exist, it is very difficult to overdose. Dr Loren Cordain, who founded a high protein diet called Paleo, recommends consuming between 200 and 300 grams of protein per day based on weight, and states that this is well below the quantities needed to spark protein toxicity.
The findings of this study show that how taking preventative measures now can contribute to a higher quality of life in old age. It is very easy to add more protein to a diet, with a salmon fillet containing around 22 grams, a chicken breast 17 grams, a slice of mozzarella 9 grams, and a slice of tofu 6 grams. Lean meats, reduced fat cheeses, eggs, dairy products, and nuts are all packed with protein and may help maintain a healthy bone density and muscle mass for longer, ultimately reducing the effects of sarcopenia and reducing the risk of related conditions such as osteoporosis.