Protein is an essential part of a healthy diet, and the protein needs for elderly is particularly important to know. Protein helps us to build muscle and to make hair, blood, connective tissue, antibodies, and enzymes. For most people, the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of protein – the basic amount needed for a sedentary person – is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This translates into approximately 46 to 53 grams of protein per day for sedentary women and men (more or less depending on weight).
Most people recognize that athletes need far more than this amount of protein. After all, athletes burn a tremendous amount of energy and need additional protein to build muscle. But what people don’t realize is that protein needs for elderly people are also higher than the protein needs for the general sedentary population.
A study highlighted by the American Physiological Society (APS) found that even with a sedentary lifestyle, protein needs for elderly persons were nearly double the RDA for other adults.
The study looked at 20 adults between the ages of 52 and 75, assigning them to one of four groups:
- Group 1: RDA of protein, evenly spread across three meals
- Group 2: RDA of protein with uneven distribution across meals (15% at breakfast, 20% at lunch and 65% at dinner)
- Group 3: Double the RDA of protein (1.5 g/kg per day), evenly spread across meals
- Group 4: Double the RDA of protein with uneven distribution, as in Group 2, supplemented with a milk protein concentrate (equal parts whey and casein) to make sure they got their total protein
Regardless of how it was distributed, the authors found that:
“Although there was no clear effect of the pattern of protein intake in our study, we observed a definitive effect of a higher amount of protein intake in mixed meals on whole body net protein balance and muscle protein synthesis. Whole body net protein balance was greater with protein intake above recommended dietary allowance.”
Protein needs of elderly people seem to increase as they age because muscle mass begins to decline. More protein intake means more possibility of building additional muscle needed for balance and stability.
This seems easy enough, but the problem is compounded by recent studies that indicate that as many as 76% of seniors who visit the emergency room are either malnourished or at risk of malnutrition.
Of these seniors, 77% reported that they had never been diagnosed with malnutrition in spite of access to healthcare and no cognitive issues. Malnutrition is a slow-moving issue, becoming serious gradually. Seniors may stop getting adequate nutrition due to depression, difficulty with eating (due to dentures or oral issues), and difficulty buying groceries.
Other studies have shown that even when they do eat, between 16 and 27% of seniors don’t even meet the minimum recommended daily allowance for protein. This is even more distressing because extra protein is protective of various conditions specific to seniors. Importantly, high levels of protein are protective against hip fracture.
Douglas Paddon-Jones, an associate professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston departments of physical therapy and internal medicine and senior author of the paper regarding seniors’ lack of protein, pointed out that increased protein intake could prevent that:
“A high percentage of elderly folks who break a hip or suffer a major injury never get out of bed again, and one of the big reasons is that they rapidly lose so much muscle mass and strength that they become physically incapable of getting up. Sufficient muscle is fundamental for the activities of daily living, movement and independence — it’s definitely a quality-of-life issue.”
Protein doesn’t just do a body good: it also does mental and emotional health good.
According to a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, elderly people who consumed high levels of protein (specifically animal protein), had a higher quality of life mentally, physically, and socially. Men in the study who consumed the highest levels of animal protein had a 39% less chance of functional decline than did men who consumed the least.
Megumi Tsubota-Utsugi, PhD, MPH, RD, of the National Institute of Health and Nutrition in Japan, and her colleagues in Tohoku University and Teikyo University, Japan, believes that identifying important nutritional factors in higher-level functioning is crucial to long, healthy lives for the elderly.
“Identifying nutritional factors that contribute to maintaining higher-level functional capacity is important for prevention of future deterioration of activities of daily living. Along with other modifiable health behaviors, a diet rich in protein may help older adults maintain their functional capacity.”
This higher-level functioning can be especially important for elderly patients with a pre-existing health condition.
Research by Mariya Markova from the German Institute of Human Nutrition (DIfE), Charité University Medicine, Berlin, Germany, and colleagues found that high-protein diets actually helped control blood sugar in patients with type 2 diabetes. In this study, protein from animal and plant sources worked equally well.
The study focused on patients with a mean age of 65 and found that blood sugar improved substantially on a high-protein diet with no adverse effects to the kidneys, noting:
“In diabetic subjects, the 6-week high-protein diet leads to an improvement in glucose metabolism and decrease in liver fat independently from the protein source. The high-protein diet has no adverse effects on kidney parameters, moreover the kidney function actually improved in the plant protein group.”
The message is clear: protein needs for the elderly are much greater than those of a middle-age or younger population. Incorporating protein into every meal and snack can help meet these needs for a higher quality of life and increased longevity.
If you are an elderly person, are you getting enough protein?