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Building lean muscle in older females helps to offset strength loss

With aging, especially in females after menopause — average age of 51 — there is an associated loss in lean muscle mass, sarcopenia, and strength, dynapenia, both having a negative impact on health, quality of life (frailty), and survival. Older women typically are at risk due to the fact that, in comparison to men, they have a lower level of muscular strength and skeletal muscle mass (SMM).

WebMD notes that by the late 30s, we can begin to lose muscle mass associated with sarcopenia. Inactivity can cause older individuals to lose 3-5 percent of their muscle mass each decade after 30. Sarcopenia usually accelerates around age 75 — associated with an increase fracture risk.

Isokinetic (tubing) and isotonic (weights) resistance exercise is proven to increase muscular strength and SMM, in conjunction with a balanced diet — with emphasis on a high-quality protein intake in support of muscle protein synthesis (MPS) — at any age.

Researchers from Londrina State University in Brazil and CUNY Lehman College, Bronx, New York, sought to determine the effect of Whey protein (WP) supplementation on muscular strength, hypertrophy (enlargement), and muscle quality in resistance-trained older women with low baseline protein ingestion.

WP, according to the researchers, contains the full complement of essential amino acids and is digested and absorbed rapidly. The high essential amino acid content derived from WP supplementation stimulates an increase in MPS post-exercise — due to its high content of the branched-chain amino acids, particularly leucine, which is a potent stimulator of MPS.

The researchers writing — “Effects of Whey Protein Supplementation Associated with Resistance Training (RT) on Muscular Strength, Hypertrophy, and Muscle Quality in Preconditioned Older Women” — which appears in the September issue of the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, recruited 31 women between the ages of 63 to 71 years to receive either 35g of a hydrolyzed (pre-digested) WP or 35g of a placebo (PLA) over a 12-week intervention period.

The WP was dissolved in 200 milliliters of water — flavored (grape or passion fruit) by the addition of 2.5g of a low-calorie, sugar-free soft drink, and consumed immediately after the conclusion of each RT session.

The participants in this randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, performed (RT) three times per week, after an 8-week RT pre-conditioning period. Prior to and after the training period, evaluations — height, weight, body mass index, food records, and maximum strength testing – were performed.

The main finding, according to the research, “was that WP supplementation increases muscular strength and hypertrophy to a greater extent than an iso-caloric PLA in older women preconditioned to RT who had been ingesting suboptimal amounts of protein, before the supplementation period.”

Further, “these results confirm our initial hypothesis that WP supplementation is a beneficial strategy to enhance RT-induced muscular adaptations, at least in older women with low baseline protein consumption.”

Another interesting point ascertained was that current research recommends a protein intake ranging from 1.2 and 2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight per day for older people, in order to increase muscle mass.

The researchers pointed to the fact that the WP group, based on food diary analysis, consumed a daily protein intake of 1.4 grams per kilogram, which they said raises the possibility that participants may have achieved even greater increases had more protein been ingested.

As for the increase in strength that is concomitant with increasing lean muscle, it appears that the 8-week resistance pre-conditioning, which the researchers refer to as the “acclimation period,” had a positive effect on the increase in lean muscle mass.

The take-away message is that despite the effects of sarcopenia and dynapenia with aging, it’s never too late to confront these issues head on and win. Remember, it’s not what happens to you in life that matters. Rather, it’s what you do about what happens to you that counts.