Max Gowland, a consultant in health and longevity and founder of Prime Fifty, the supplement brand developed specifically for ageing consumers, argues that it is vital that the industry works to raise awareness about sarcopenia and encourage them to take steps to maintain muscle health.
"Communicating the significance of muscle health to older adults can indeed be challenging, especially when they might feel content with their current condition. However, it's a missed opportunity considering the critical importance of muscle health."
He believes that while conditions like osteoporosis are widely recognised, awareness of sarcopenia, the age-related loss of muscle mass and strength, may not be as widespread.
"Raising awareness about sarcopenia is essential because it plays a significant role in overall health and quality of life as people age. Just like osteoporosis, sarcopenia deserves attention and care to ensure healthy aging and maintain independence.
"From my standpoint, as we age, supplementation becomes a necessity rather than a luxury."
Sarcopenia and protein
Gowland explains that loss of muscle tends to occur after the age of 40 and tends to accelerate after this age but we can stave-off the process with a high protein diet and resistance exercise.
"Around 1-2% of muscle is lost each year, meaning that we may have lost as much as 25% of our muscle by the time we get to 65! We will also have lost even more strength too.
"Loss of musculo-skeletal ability is a precursor to frailty but this can occur far too early in life if we are sedentary and this becomes even worse if we are failing to eat enough protein in our diet.
"There is so much we can do to stave off potential sarcopenia as we age such as resistance exercise and a protein rich diet."
He explains that one of the problems with less muscle mass is the inability to efficiently dispose of glucose in our diets.
"This means less glucose can be absorbed due to lower muscle mass, which in turn puts strain on our pancreas to make more and more insulin so that our glucose is absorbed. In addition, extra glucose that cannot be absorbed is then converted into fat and is laid down in our adipose tissue.
"One of the causes of rapid muscle loss is our ‘anabolic resistance’ to protein synthesis and hence muscle repletion. Every day we lose muscle and also make new muscle but as we age this equilibrium becomes out of sync and we then tend to lose more than we make."
What's more, he says the effect of protein has less effect on building muscle as we get older, meaning a higher intake is required.
"The old RDA of 0.8g/kg/d seems quite outdated now, especially when applied to older adults who need between 1.0-1.2 g/kg/d due to their anabolic resistance."
Discussing the animal versus plant protein debate, he notes that studies have shown that whey protein and animal proteins have a slightly better amino acid profile, largely due to the presence of higher levels of the three branched chain amino acids leucine, iso-leucine and valine.
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Looking beyond protein, Gowland points out that many forget the importance of micronutrients in supporting protein synthesis.
"There is a huge amount of science that has shown that muscle function and protein synthesis also requires Vitamin C, Potassium, Calcium, Zinc and Magnesium. In fact the latest science across multiple trials has now shown that omega 3 fatty acids also play a key role in muscle health and even muscle hypertrophy."
He adds that another interesting nutrient is Hydroxy Methyl Butyrate, otherwise known as HMB, which has been used in muscle building circles for years yet the main benefit of HMB has been seen in older adults where it has slowed down muscle loss. HMB is also seen as an ‘anti-catabolic’ agent and is found as an additive in some hospital drinks aimed older adults.
Pointing out that chronic inflammation can interfere with muscle recovery and growth, Gowland points out that certain probiotics have been found to be effective in reducing inflammation.
He additionally notes that probiotics have been suggested to influence the immune system, support the production of health-promoting short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), and even impact muscle fatigue and recovery.
"A well-functioning immune system can help the body respond effectively to stress and inflammation caused by intense exercise, promoting muscle healing and adaptation.
"Probiotic bacteria in the gut can ferment dietary fibers and produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). These SCFAs have been linked to various health benefits, including improved insulin sensitivity and reduced inflammation. Improved insulin sensitivity can positively affect muscle metabolism and growth."
"The gut microbiota communicates with the brain through the gut-brain axis. This communication pathway can influence various physiological processes, including those related to muscle health. Certain probiotics might affect this axis, potentially impacting factors like muscle fatigue and recovery."
The communication challenge
Discussing the key challenges in developing and marketing supplements that appeal to the older demographic, Gowland notes that many older adults are not interested in helping their muscle health as much as their fatigue, their joints, their brain and other more acute concerns.
"I believe this will change as the younger adults, who have been brought up with the importance of protein. Will start to move through and become healthy agers later. Taking protein in the form of a shake is a little inconvenient for many.
He suggests that more accessible formats would help to overcome some of these hurdles.
"Also the appearance of a big tub or even a pouch has connotations of young guys down the gym and ‘this is not really for me’. This is a barrier unfortunately to what could be a very healthy addition to their diet.
"The majority of protein supplements come in powdered form, demanding a couple of substantial scoops to yield an additional 30 grams of protein, for instance. Protein is also accessible in liquid form, with some contemporary protein drinks boasting delightful flavours. Nevertheless, these options can prove costly, especially for daily consumption."