Study highlights protein's role in avoiding disability for older adults

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06 Nov 2018 --- As populations are living longer, more attention should be paid toward dietary elements that can contribute to the sustenance of a good quality of life. Published in the Journal of American Geriatrics, a study has found that participants over the age of 85 who ate relatively high levels of protein were less likely to become disabled. The researchers note that it is essential that food and nutritional products address the needs of older adults, but emphasize the importance of evidence-based information so as not to mislead them.

The independence of participants was measured along the person’s ability to manage two different levels of life skills: Basic daily care, such as dressing yourself, and basic housekeeping, such as sufficient mobility to do shopping.

“We believe that the largest benefit of protein consumption is due to delaying muscle mass and strength loss. This would have a profound impact on a lot of the disabilities measured in our study, such as mobility aspects,” Dr. Nuno Mendonca, the principal author of the study, tells NutritionInsight.

“However, other disabilities, especially instrumental activities of daily living (e.g., managing medications and finances) have a strong cognition component, and because certain amino acids are essential for neurotransmitter synthesis it follows that protein intake would affect the incidence and progression of some disabilities,” she says.

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Older adults tend to have a lower protein intake than younger adults
due to poorer health, reduced physical activity and
changes in the mouth and teeth, the researchers note.

Older adults tend to have a lower protein intake than younger adults due to poorer health, reduced physical activity and changes in the mouth and teeth, the researchers note. The study itself found that of its 722 UK participants, one quarter (28 percent) of older adults had protein intakes below the daily recommended intake. The researchers note that older adults who have more chronic health conditions might also have different protein requirements.

The findings demonstrated that, overall, participants who ate more protein at the beginning of the study were less likely to become disabled when compared to people who ate less protein.

Should we formulate high-protein products for older adults?
Regarding the food industries formulation of products targeting older adults, Dr. Mendonca tells NutritionInsight: “The food industry should recognize that older adults are important consumers with their own needs, preferences and attitudes towards food. It is also essential that any product reformulation be evidence-based so that translation can benefit older adults and not mislead them.”

In medical nutrition, a large amount of research is conducted among the target groups to formulate products, such as hyperproteic supplements for disease-related malnutrition, to counteract protein losses (burns, catabolic processes, etc.) or to encourage repair of damaged tissues, Dr. Mendonca explains.

This equivalent analysis of older adults living in a community setting would be useful.

Notably, this study is part of the “Prevention Of Malnutrition In Senior Subjects in the EU” (PROMISS) consortium. The overarching aim of this group is to provide concrete recommendations for an active and healthy lifestyle in later years. One of the critical strategies aims to design new food concepts and products that fit within the dietary strategies developed from studies such as this one on protein and older adults.

At ESPEN 2018, NutritionInsight discussed some of the aspects of the PROMISS study with Christine Yung Hung.

“[The consortium] will offer to food industry evidence-based knowledge to develop food products and concepts, and reformulate and re-market existing products to strengthen their global market position. However, it is still too early to draw definite conclusions on whether to select from existing products, re-formulate products to include more high-quality protein or change the public health message,” Dr. Mendonca tells NutritionInsight.

Previous studies have similarly noted the important role protein can play for seniors looking to live a long and mobile life. Findings published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that whey protein increased lean muscle mass and muscle protein synthesis during recovery from short-term muscle loss. Nena Dockery, Technical Services Manager at Stratum Nutrition, has also highlighted protein as a key component for senior’s diets due to its ability to improve muscle strength and recovery.

By Laxmi Haigh

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