The Key to Longevity
Do you want to age like a fine wine or soured milk? If you answered fine wine, then protein is the key. Current evidence shows that the protein needs of older adults may be slightly higher than those of younger people (1,3). While this seems like useful information, it leaves us with more questions than answers. We know that as we age, adult energy needs decline roughly 5% per decade. But why is this? There are two main reasons, one, our level of physical activity generally declines, and two, basal metabolic rate declines 1-2% per decade, largely because lean body mass and thyroid hormones diminish. This loss of muscle mass is known as sarcopenia. But why should we care about losing muscle mass? And does this mean we should all be striving to look like Hulk Hogan or Ronda Rousey? To answer the first question, if you are one of those that plan on living in such a way that you can wipe your own butt well into old age, then preserving lean muscle matters. With the loss of skeletal muscle mass comes serious side effects, such as losing the ability to move and maintain balance. While not many of us have the goal of becoming professional tightrope walkers during retirement, most of us would like to stay upright and avoid Life Alert© . The answer to the second question, is no, we do not all have to look like muscled up wrestling stars, but maintaining lean body mass, no matter how you do it, is important. Lean body mass can look different on different people, think fit and trim, however you might want that to look on you, be that big and bulky or long and sinewy. So how do we counteract this loss of muscle mass? The answer is simple. Keep digestion strong, eat a healthy diet containing adequate protein, continue being active, and maintain muscle mass by doing strength building activities. While we can’t stop the clock completely, we definitely have it within our power to drastically slow it down.
In order to keep ourselves strong and capable, we need to keep our digestion strong, but we should first know why it matters. Our stomachs put on quite a show when it comes to digestion, and the headliner is protein breakdown. Without sufficient hydrochloric acid in the stomach, the proteins we eat cannot get broken down sufficiently. Having low stomach acid, a condition known as hypochlorhydria, becomes more common as we get older. People over the age of 65 years are most likely to have low levels of hydrochloric acid, and in order to combat this, it is important to get sufficient key nutrients (such as zinc and B vitamins) in your diet right now, whatever stage of life that might be for you currently. It is also important to limit alcohol consumption and the use of certain medications such as antacids, as these both have an impact on stomach acid. It is also wise to limit NSAID usage (such as ibuprofen and naproxen) as their usage can have negative effects on the digestive system as well. Strong digestion means the protein that you are eating has a much better chance of being broken down and utilized for the body’s needs.
Protein intake and physical activity are the main anabolic stimuli for muscle protein synthesis. This means as we get older, we have to pay more attention to our protein intake. It is quite common as we age to eat fewer total kilocalories overall, so getting in a greater percentage of calories from protein becomes vital in the process of keeping our immune systems healthy, maintaining proper pH and, most importantly for this discussion, preventing the loss of muscle and bone tissue. We know that dietary protein is crucial for skeletal muscle function and we want to keep everything operating at maximum capacity. The current recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein in adults, both young and old, is set at 0.8g/kg per body weight. This means that if you are an adult not doing a lot of physical activity and that weighs 150 pounds, you should be aiming for roughly 54 grams of protein per day. But we have to remember, older adults were rarely included in studies used to establish RDAs, so these standards might not adequately address an older population. More recent research leans towards older adults getting in at least 1.0 to 1.2 g/kg per body weight, so at that same weight, you should be aiming for roughly 68-81 grams of protein per day (2). In fact, this is the standard adopted by the European Society for Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism (4). A snapshot of this type of protein intake would look roughly like 1 cup of cooked lentils, 1 egg, 4 ounces of chicken breast, and less than one ounce of almonds spread out over the period of one day. We also can’t forget that while getting adequate protein in the diet is important, the other macronutrients are important too so that protein can do its job. Quality carbohydrates and fats protect protein from being used as an energy source by the body. We need fats and carbs so that protein is able to do its job of building and preserving lean tissue.
Keep in mind that no matter how much protein we eat, we can’t neglect the physical aspect of this, which is staying active and using our muscles daily, so that they may serve us well into the golden years and keep us from breaking a proverbial hip.
About the author:
Rachel Shuck is a board certified nutrition coach with a passion for running and all things fitness. She is a two time Boston Qualifier that loves helping other athletes meet their goals through dietary changes. She currently teaches nutrition courses at the local college while pursuing her doctorate in clinical nutrition.
Contact can be made at www.nextlevelnutrition.fitness or email firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Douglas Paddon-Jones, Kevin R Short, Wayne W Campbell, Elena Volpi, Robert R Wolfe, Role of dietary protein in the sarcopenia of aging, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 87, Issue 5, May 2008, Pages 1562S–1566S, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/87.5.1562S
2. Stuart M Phillips, Determining the protein needs of “older” persons one meal at a time, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 105, Issue 2, February 2017, Pages 291–292, https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.116.150839
3. Satoshi Fujita, Elena Volpi, Amino Acids and Muscle Loss with Aging, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 136, Issue 1, January 2006, Pages 277S–280S, https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/136.1.277S
4. Deutz NE, Bauer JM, Barazzoni R, et al. Protein intake and exercise for optimal muscle function with aging: recommendations from the ESPEN Expert Group. Clin Nutr. 2014;33(6):929–936. doi:10.1016/j.clnu.2014.04.007