HomeWellnessAgingCan protein supplements aid in rebuilding muscle in elderly people?

Can protein supplements aid in rebuilding muscle in elderly people?

Researchers investigated whether giving whey or collagen protein supplements could prevent muscle loss and aid in rebuilding muscle in elderly people.

As people age, they gradually lose muscle mass. This is partly due to reduced physical activity, although muscle loss occurs even in active seniors. Muscle loss causes problems with mobility and balance, which can, in turn, lead to falls and fractures. Age-related muscle loss can be worsened by illness or hospitalization as, in addition to being inactive, a person may not have an adequate diet. Strength training and resistance exercises help to remedy muscle loss, and giving protein supplements may also aid in rebuilding muscle.

It is not clear what the most suitable protein supplements are for elderly people. Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada studied the effects of whey and collagen supplements in healthy older people in preventing muscle loss and rebuilding muscle. They recently reported their findings in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The researchers recruited 32 healthy male and female volunteers aged between 65 and 80 years old to a five-week experimental study. The volunteers received prepared calorie-controlled meals and were randomly assigned to receive either whey or collagen protein supplements for the course of the study.

After monitoring the participants for a week at the beginning of the study, the researchers reduced their diet by 500 calories, and they were asked to restrict their activity to 750 steps per day for the following two weeks. This was to simulate the conditions of illness or hospitalization. In the final week of the study – the recovery period – calorie intake and activity levels were returned to baseline level. At each phase of the study, the volunteers had blood tests, muscle biopsies and scans to look at the effects on muscle loss and muscle rebuilding.

Volunteers in both groups lost muscle mass during the periods of calorie restriction and decreased activity. During the recovery period, muscle mass increased in the whey protein group, but not in the collagen protein group.

The researchers concluded that protein supplementation did not protect against muscle loss during calorie restriction and inactivity. Whey protein helped in rebuilding muscle in the recovery period, but collagen protein did not.

Whey is a high-quality protein rich in all the essential amino acids, including leucine which is an important building block for muscle. Collagen is a lower quality supplement with a lower leucine content. The researchers commented that “not all proteins are created equal”. For supporting vulnerable seniors, whey is more appropriate than collagen for rebuilding muscle.

Written by Julie McShane, Medical Writer


  1. Oikawa SY, McGlory C, Souza LK, et al. A randomized controlled trial of the impact of protein supplementation on leg lean mass and integrated muscle protein synthesis during inactivity and energy restriction in older persons. Am J Clin Nutrition 2018:108;1-9.
  2. McMaster University. Researchers pinpoint ideal protein to help seniors rebuild lost muscle. EurekAlert, 9 Oct 2018 https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-10/mu-rpi100918.php
Julie Mcshane MA MB BS
Julie Mcshane MA MB BS
Julie studied medicine at the Universities of Cambridge and London, UK. Whilst in medical practice, she developed an interest in medical writing and moved to a career in medical communications. She worked with companies in London and Hong Kong on a wide variety of medical education projects. Originally from Ireland, Julie is now based in Dublin, where she is a freelance medical writer. She enjoys contributing to the Medical News Bulletin to help provide a source of accurate and clear information about the latest developments in medical research.


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