The World Health Organization predicts that the percent of the world’s population over 60 years of age will nearly double in the next 35 years, growing to 22% in 2050 from 12% in 2015.

The combination of regular exercise and optimal protein intake can help ensure that these seniors lead healthy, active lives. Dairy protein, which is high in quality and suitable for a wide variety of food and beverage applications, can help seniors maintain muscle mass throughout the aging process.

Newer research is fine-tuning recommendations to optimize retention of muscle mass for the elderly, and the focus has shifted from daily protein intake to protein intake at each meal.


Protein plus exercise

Strategies for seniors to maintain muscle and avoid falls and fractures must focus on a combination of exercise and higher protein intake. Research with stable isotopes has confirmed that seniors have reduced ability to rebuild muscle. This results in a gradual decrease in muscle mass beginning at age 40, and profound loss of muscle mass during prolonged periods of inactivity due to illness or hospitalization.

“Approximately 20 grams of protein is sufficient to rebuild muscle after resistance exercise in younger adults. However, our research indicates that greater doses of protein, approximately 40 grams, may be required for older adults to achieve a robust stimulation of muscle protein synthesis during post-exercise recovery,” said Stuart M. Phillips of McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

Optimal muscle mass for seniors is achieved by both maximizing protein synthesis and minimizing protein breakdown. And while further research is needed, newer studies are exploring the advantages of focusing on protein intake at each meal rather than on total daily intake.

“Older adults should strive to consume around 0.4 grams protein/kg/meal. Optimally, protein should be consumed any time in the three to four hour window after exercise, although there is perhaps a small advantage to consuming it sooner after exercise. Little research has been done on how protein needs differ between the sexes, but older women may need more,” said Phillips.

While the focus has been on resistance exercise to build and maintain muscle, newer research indicates that aerobic activity, including high-intensity interval training, may improve nutrient delivery to skeletal muscle.


Protein quality matters

In a recent editorial, Phillips also emphasized the importance of protein quality.

“Whey protein isolate is one of the highest-quality proteins with a high leucine content. Leucine is the trigger amino acid that gets the process of muscle protein synthesis going,” he wrote.

Breakfast is often the meal where protein content is lowest. And because breakfast foods are often grain-based, protein quality may also be suboptimal. Evidence suggests that older adults should consume at least 2.5 grams of leucine at each meal. Whey-based breakfast foods might help meet this target.


The opportunity for dairy processors

“Food For The Aging Population” (Elsevier, 2016) provides an in-depth look at social, economic and lifestyle factors that affect food intake among the elderly. It explores reduced appetites, gender roles and the interaction between diet and physical activity.

The book explains, “In both the United State and Europe, average protein intakes by older adults fall in at the lower range of acceptable, meaning that nearly half of older adults are below this range.”

Issues such as poor dentition and reduced swallowing ability may reduce senior’s ability to consume high-quality animal protein. However, dairy proteins can be formulated into entrees that are more easily consumed by seniors. Opportunities for dairy exist domestically and abroad. The 2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals that U.S. seniors age 55 to 74 spend approximately 13% more on food.

“Japan has the highest share and China the largest number of seniors in the world, which increases the need for consumer products that meet aging-related needs in these countries,” said Kristi Saitama, vice president of export ingredients marketing for the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

“Consuming 20 to 30 grams of high-quality protein per meal may help consumers better maintain bone and muscle mass, and aid in combatting sarcopenia and chronic diseases,” she said. “This is where U.S. whey protein can help as it can be formulated in a range of meals, not just in Western-style food, but also in Japanese, Chinese and other world cuisines as well. For example, we crafted a simple pasta recipe using whey, increasing the protein content in an otherwise low-protein key item in a meal.”

As the ranks of the aged swell around the world, food formulators can capitalize on dairy protein as a vital ingredient in meals for healthy aging.