Every day in the clinic I hear the same complaint from my older men and women. They are losing their muscle mass and they don't like it. They look in the mirror and are wondering just who that person is. They hear about how a high protein diet or protein powder supplements can increase their muscle mass or at the very least slow down the loss. But they want to know if that's just a bunch of hype or does it really work. I am very happy to report that a recent study answered this question. And the results are a bit surprising.
The authors of the study wanted to see how effectively a dietary protein supplement would be able to prevent muscle loss. So they chose 23 men. All of them were 69+ years old. They used leg strength tests, CT scans to assess the size of their thigh muscles, and muscle biopsies to look at genetic changes characteristic of muscle loss. Then they completely immobilized one of their legs by placing it in a full leg cast. They gave half of the men 20 grams of protein in a supplement twice a day. That's a considerable amount of extra protein. The other half did not get the extra protein. They did this for five days and then they repeated all of the tests. The results were amazing, and just serve to show you how important it is to keep on moving.
In only five days of inactivity both groups lost statistically significant amounts of muscle mass — 1%-2.5%. That's an incredible amount of muscle loss in only five days. I wish it was possible to put that much muscle on in only five days! But that's what us older folks are up against. It's a lot easier to lose muscle than it is to put it on. Even brief periods of inactivity can bring about muscle loss. Think of what happens to a person after a long hospitalization or a hip or knee surgery. And here's the thing. The protein supplement was no help at all (for a very simple reason). The amount of muscle loss was identical in both groups in every one of the tests. But there are a few valuable lessons that we can learn from this interesting study.
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First, what's the absolute best way to lose muscle mass? Obviously, the answer is to stop using the muscle. The ten-dollar medical phrase for this is "disuse atrophy." As we get older, we especially need to be aware of the possibility of disuse atrophy. So catch a clue all you couch people. Get moving! I would love to see you spending about three hours a week doing resistance training to keep your muscle mass at a healthy level. One particular form of exercise that can be very effective even for those who hate regular resistance training, are convalescing, or for other reasons can't exercise effectively is the Power Plate. I'll have more on this device in a future issue of Second Opinion. In the meantime, you can learn more about this remarkable device by calling 888-713-0592.
Next, taking extra protein does not help at all if you're not active. If you don't exercise your muscles, they won't take up the protein. Protein powder is okay to take, and it can be helpful as long as you combine it with proper exercise. But there's a better option. I'll have more on this option in an upcoming alert. It's more expensive than protein powder, but it's much more effective.
Lastly, hormones are critical. The same results would not have occurred in young men. Why? It's simple. They have plenty of hormones. Muscles need adequate levels of hormones to maintain themselves. Old guys just don't have the same levels they used to have. Very few guys over 60 don't need some kind of hormone replacement. This, of course, holds true for women as well.
Combine hormone replacement with regular exercise, a high-protein diet, and MAP supplementation and you have the complete remedy for the muscle wasting that is so common as we get older.
Yours for better health,
Frank Shallenberger, MD
Dirks ML, Wall BT, Nilwik R, et al. Skeletal muscle disuse atrophy is not attenuated by dietary protein supplementation in healthy older men. J Nutr. 2014 Aug;144(8):1196-203.