Canadian docs made a protein powder specifically for seniors’ muscles. Here’s why

Click to play video: 'Canadian scientists develop protein supplement to help stop muscle loss in seniors'
Canadian scientists develop protein supplement to help stop muscle loss in seniors
People start losing muscle mass and strength in their 40s. So by the time we are officially seniors, we have lost a lot of muscle. As Allison Vuchnich reports, Canadian scientists have developed a protein supplement - that in combination with exercise - can repair muscle loss – Jul 21, 2017

When you think of protein powder, you often think of body builders with bulky muscles and chiseled chests. But what about seniors?

Canadian scientists out of McMaster University created a ready-to-drink formula that’s a protein supplement specifically for seniors. Keep in mind, it’s this segment of the population that’s grappling with weakening bones and loss of muscle mass – the doctors are hopeful their protein powder will stop muscle deterioration, handing the elderly more strength and mobility.

“There are more older adults now in Canada and around the world and people are living longer. It’s great but their quality of life doesn’t stay on pace. We need to find a way to help people stay healthy and exercise and proper nutrition are two ways to do that,” Dr. Kirsten Bell, the study’s lead author, told Global News.

“Most people have heard of protein powders and it’s useful for young people who are body building but it’s also relevant to older adults who need [protein] and aren’t getting enough of it. Nutritional supplements need to be explored,” she explained.

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As we age, our muscle mass and strength deteriorate as sarcopenia sets in. It’s tied to an increased risk of falls, metabolic disorders, and trouble with carrying out simple tasks like carrying groceries to your car, and ultimately, getting out of your seat.

About 40 to 70 per cent of older Canadians encounter sarcopenia. We start to lose muscle and strength in our 40s.

But Bell and her team created a protein powder supplement that’s meant to combat sarcopenia. It includes whey protein, creatine, vitamin D, calcium and fish oil – it’s the first time these ingredients have been combined in an attempt to stave off sarcopenia.

“Most [protein powders] when you buy it off the shelf of a grocery store or nutrition store, it’s just whey protein,” Bell said.

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It’s unlike any drinks marketed to elderly Canadians right now, too.

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“A lot of the energy drinks and nutrition drinks catered to older adults don’t contain enough protein but they’re also lacking in a bunch of other ingredients. This is something that could add value if it’s available more widely,” Bell said.

In her study, Bell worked with two groups of men who were about 73 years old. Half of the group was fed the protein-based drink for six weeks without an exercise regimen while the other group took a placebo.

After that, the two groups added on a 12-week exercise training program in the lab: they did resistance training and high-intensity interval training.

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Turns out, the elderly study participants saw a change in their body composition.

In the first six weeks, those taking the protein supplement saw a gain of 700 grams in lean body mass. That’s “substantial,” Bell said – about as much muscle mass a senior would lose in a year if they were grappling with sarcopenia.

After adding exercise into the mix, both groups saw their strength improve even more. They also recorded better glucose control and reduced risk of diabetes.

“Both groups got stronger and improved in various fitness measures but the group that took the active drink while exercising gained more strength,” Bell said.

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Bell’s hope is that the protein supplement could be doled out to seniors in old age homes, and long-term care facilities. It could even be recommended to aging adults who are worried about sarcopenia and losing muscle mass.

The new research, published Tuesday in the journal PLOS ONE, comes out of Dr. Stuart Phillips’ lab. Phillips is a kinesiology professor who has studied resistance training and its role in keeping seniors healthy and autonomous.

Last year, he suggested that it doesn’t matter how heavy your weights are or how many repetitions you do. As long as you’re lifting to the point of exhaustion, your muscles will strengthen.

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Seniors, for example, could do more harm than good from heavy lifting. Strength training and maintaining muscle mass through light weight lifting may be their better bet, he said.

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Bell said that the supplement will help work in tandem with light resistance training for seniors. In some cases, seniors can’t exercise or lift – in those scenarios, the supplement comes to their aid.

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