Eating a Protein-Rich Diet May Helps Older Adults Preserve Muscle Mass, Study Says

Plus: Strong leg muscles can help prevent falls.

After age 50, adults may lose 1-2 percent of muscle mass each year. Plus, muscle strength declines 1.5 percent annually up to age 60, and 3 percent a year after that, according to the CDC. This leads to an increased risk of falls—the CDC estimates that one in three adults 65 and older fall each year, and 30 percent of those falls result in injuries such as lacerations, hip fractures, and head trauma.

But new research from the Boston-based Hebrew SeniorLife Institute for Aging Research (IFAR) found that a protein-rich diet—both animal and plant sources—preserves lean muscle mass in the legs of older adults, which also leads to increased strength.

The study was recently published in the Journal of Nutrition.

“Muscle mass and strength has been examined in older adults, but little is known about how modifiable risk factors in middle age can contribute to a decline in muscle health,” says the study’s lead author Shivani Sahni.

Douglas P. Kiel, M.D., director of the Musculoskeletal Research Center at IFAR and co-author of the study, says that it was important for the researchers to determine what kind of impact protein consumption can have on leg muscle mass so the researchers could discover key interventions and other ways to improve quality of life in older age.

According to the study:

Researchers used data from the Framingham Offspring Cohort—a study initiated in 1971 to investigate familial risk factors for cardiovascular disease—for the present cross-sectional study. Participants were between 29 and 86 years of age, and included 2,656 men and women in quadriceps strength analyses and 2,636 men and women in analyses of leg lean mass. Protein intake, leg lean mass and quadriceps strength were measured at various times between 1998 and 2001.

Findings indicate that protein intake was 80 grams per day for male and 76 grams per day for women. Leg lean mass was higher in participants at the highest levels of total protein and animal protein consumption. Plant protein intake was not associated with lean mass in men or women.

The study also found that the alkaline properties in the plants may help preserve muscle strength. “Eating a diet rich in protein may help preserve leg muscle mass and strength as we age, which could mitigate risk of falls,” said Marian T. Hannan, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and co-author of the study. “Further investigation of the impact of plant protein on muscle strength is needed.”