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Whey Protein & Elderly Muscle Wasting

author image Frank Gavigan
Frank Gavigan has been writing for the food industry since 1990. He specializes in stabilizers, so just about every processed food interests him. He has written technical bulletins, edited academic manuscripts and commissioned reviews. Gavigan holds a Bachelor of Science in food science from Queen's University, Belfast.
Whey Protein & Elderly Muscle Wasting
Smiling elderly couple looking out window. Photo Credit Jupiterimages/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Following a good diet and getting regular exercise become even more important as you get older. Recent research indicates that a diet including good quality protein, such as whey, can help to reduce age-related muscle wasting. Dr. Alan Hayes, a researcher in exercise metabolism at Victoria University, reports that delaying gradual loss of muscle is vital for healthy aging. To understand why whey protein can be useful, you need to know something about cheese making.

Curds and whey

Miss Muffett was actually eating curdled milk when she saw the spider. When milk is acidified, some of the proteins, or casein, clump in a gelatinous mass called curds. The white liquid left surrounding the curds is called whey. When the curds are pressed and sieved, the solid eventually becomes cheese. Once upon a time, whey was thrown away. However, as a component of milk, the highly nutritional value of whey is now generally accepted.

Muscle Loss

Doctors call age-related muscle wasting sarcopenia. Your grandparents might have accepted this as inevitable. However, health professionals now understand the process of muscle loss much better. Whatever your age, muscle is constantly being broken down as part of normal metabolism. However, in older people, muscle rebuilding, or anabolism, slows. Assistant Professor Christos Katsanos at the Center for Metabolic Biology reports that nutritional supplementation can be an important way of increasing muscle anabolism in the elderly. Muscle weakness can have serious health implications. For example, you are much more likely to fall and suffer injury if weak leg muscles make you unsteady. So, with recent advances in understanding, you should not accept sarcopenia as an unavoidable consequence of aging.

Amino Acid Availability

When muscle protein is broken down to its constituent amino acids, they are released into the blood. In older people they are not all taken up again, so gradual muscles loss occurs. Ingestion of a balanced amino acid mixture stimulates muscle build-up by increasing blood amino acid levels. Essential amino acids which your body cannot make are even more effective. Dr. Elena Volpi, a professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch, reports that elderly people respond just as well as younger people to raised blood amino acid levels.

Whey Protein

Whey contains a wide range of proteins, including beta-lactoglobulin, alpha-lactalbumin, immunoglobulin and proteins described as disease resistance factors, note the University of Illinois. These proteins, which are rich in essential amino acids, help make whey protein useful in maintaining skeletal muscle. Katsanos reports that ingesting whey protein is much more effective than taking an equivalent amount of amino acids as a supplement. This is believed to be because whey also stimulates blood insulin levels. If you take as little as 15g of whey protein after exercise, you will improve muscle build-up more effectively than by taking a supplement containing the same amount of amino acids.

Exercise and Diet

Unfortunately, it is not just a matter of supplementing your diet with protein. Dr. Alan Hayes notes that resistance training or physical exercise also can play an important role in delaying sarcopenia. Whey protein is much more effective if taken in the hours after exercise. Amino acid levels in the blood are raised at a time when your muscle tissues are best able to take them up. Thereby, you can delay muscle wasting.

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