Gerontologists, scientists who study aging, published a study in Experimental Gerontology on March 26, indicating that whey protein supplements promote muscle performance in the elderly. If their results hold, whey protein supplements could offer a promising avenue for improving health of the elderly.

Studies like these have gained importance with the increasing population of elderly individuals worldwide. Because our physical functions decline as we age, new methods to improve muscle structure and health are crucial for maintaining health into our old age. Improving muscle structure and function in the elderly is one way to promote a better quality of life and longevity in this population.

“Whey protein also appears to contribute to improved health, recovery from disease, prevention of cardiovascular and metabolic risks, and hepatic steatosis complications,” wrote the authors.

Whey protein could constitute a nutritional supplement to promote quality of life and longevity in the elderly. Some clinical nutrition research has already indicated protein is a key nutrient for health in the elderly, aiding in improved physical performance and better quality of life. The body can digest whey protein with ease, which increases concentrations of protein building blocks, called amino acids, circulating in the body. Higher levels of protein building blocks in the blood promote the generation of functional muscle.

Sifting through scientific literature, the authors found  35 studies, wherein elderly individuals aged 65 years and older consumed whey protein supplements. Overall, results showed that supplementation was associated with improvements in muscle strength and physical function, which translated into a higher quality of life for these participants. 

Adding to evidence of improved muscle strength and function, some of the studies they examined found increased protein and protein building block concentrations in elderly individuals who consumed whey protein. This improvement comes in comparison to elderly individuals who did not consume whey protein.

(Camargo et al.; 2020 / Experimental Gerontology)

“In general, the data found in this review suggest that whey protein supplementation was promising for the health of the elderly population,” wrote the authors. 

Although some studies found no differences between whey protein-consuming elderly and elderly without whey protein consumption, the authors attribute this to the short period of time over which whey protein consumption was studied.

Most of the research done on whey protein consumption in the elderly has focused on short-term improvements in muscle performance. The authors of the study suggested that future research should analyze the long-term effects of whey protein intake in the elderly population. It should also examine different profiles of the elderly population, such as the very old elderly, according to the authors. The majority of the current literature has only examined the effects of whey protein consumption on general populations of individuals aged 65 and older. There could be age ranges in which whey protein consumption is more beneficial than others.