How Whey Protein Fights Aging
Whey protein is widely assumed to be a supplement just for athletes seeking to add additional muscle mass.
That's just a small part of the picture. Studies reveal that whey has anti-aging benefits.
Research shows that whey reduces muscle wasting in the elderly, inhibits weight gain, may help prevent cardiovascular disease, and more.1-11
Whey is a food source studied for maximizing production of glutathione,12,13 one of the body's main internally produced, free radical scavengers.14,15
Glutathione levels drop with age, and this could play a role in neurodegenerative disease, reduced immunity, and a host of other age-related conditions.16-20
Whey, made from the liquid part of milk that separates during cheese production, is not just a source of protein, but also of nutrients including branched-chain amino acids, immunoglobulins, and bio-active protein sub-fractions such as lactoferrin.
These benefits show why whey is increasingly viewed as a food that can prevent frailty and promote healthy longevity.
What you need to know
- Whey protein is not just for athletes seeking to build muscle mass.
- Whey supplementation has been shown to help prevent the loss of muscle mass in aging individuals, inhibit weight gain, and reduce risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
- This potent protein helps prevent frailty, obesity, and heart disease, while promoting longevity.
Whey Keeps Muscles from Weakening
About 45% of older individuals in the general population, and more than 84% in residential care facilities, are not adequately nourished.21,22 This happens, among other reasons, because older people often have reduced appetites and eat less, while nutrients aren't absorbed as well as we age.22-24
An insufficient intake of quality protein can lead to loss of muscle mass. For most people, this muscle loss begins around age 40, with an estimated 8% loss of muscle mass per decade. After age 70, muscle mass decreases by about 15% per decade.24
Approximately 5%-13% of people aged 60 or over experience age-related muscle-wasting that is so severe, it increases the risk of falls and disability.25-27
Inadequate protein consumption among older individuals is associated with reduced strength, decreased bone mass, low immunity, cognitive impairment, and delayed recovery from wounds and surgery.28 In fact, low protein intake is associated with frailty,29 when the body is so weak it becomes unable to cope with stress or injury. Frailty is a strong predictor of mortality in the elderly.21,30
Loss of muscle mass is not inevitable but does require some active countermeasures to prevent it.
Whey protein delivers an abundance of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), essential nutrients that reduce muscle breakdown and stimulate the building of protein in muscle.31
Of the three BCAAs found in whey, leucine is the most metabolically active, helping to build muscle by activating a signaling pathway that controls the body's anabolic (growth-promoting) drive.2,32-35 Aging muscle ordinarily becomes resistant to leucine stimulation, but taking leucine-rich whey can overcome this, stimulating muscle synthesis.33-37
One study focused on hospitalized elderly men and women who had been classified as frail and assessed the effects of whey on rehabilitation outcomes. The intervention group received whey supplements daily for the duration of their hospital stay.6
Compared to patients who didn't receive whey, those who took it showed significant improvements in grip strength and knee extensor force. Scientists concluded that whey improves the nutritional status and rehabilitation outcomes among frail and elderly people.6
Whey Boosts Lean Muscle Mass
Whey has valuable potential to help prevent age-related muscle loss. But the benefits go even further. Recent studies have shown that whey significantly increases lean muscle mass—and not just among athletes.
In a randomized, controlled trial, researchers divided 81 healthy, older women, aged 65-80, into three groups for a 24-week program. One group exercised twice weekly, the second group took whey protein supplements but didn't exercise, and the third group took whey protein after exercising.4
The increase in skeletal muscle mass was significantly higher for the whey-and-exercise group than for either of the two other groups. There was also a significant increase in grip strength and walking speed.4
Researchers next turned to inactive older individuals, conducting a study to assess whey's effects on muscle during recovery from periods of inactivity, such as hospitalization. In this controlled trial, men and women in their late sixties consumed a diet in which 45% of their protein intake came from either whey or a source of animal peptides.1
After a week of habitual activity and energy balance, they spent another week in energy restriction, during which 500 fewer daily calories were consumed per day. The number of steps they took daily was then reduced for another two weeks. Finally, they returned to normal activity for the last week (recovery).1
During the periods of reduced activity, lean leg mass declined in both groups. But during the recovery week, lean leg mass increased—only in the whey protein group.1 The branched-chain amino acids found in whey play an essential role in supporting lean muscle mass, especially among older adults.38,39
Whey Helps Stop Age-Related Weight Gain
Whey doesn't just affect the muscles. As we age, metabolism slows, and we start to put on weight more easily, increasing our risk of everything from heart disease to diabetes to strokes. This used to seem like an inevitable part of life.
Not anymore. Research shows that whey is an effective way to fight fat, helping to maintain weight and lean body mass as we age.40
Scientists reviewing many previous studies concluded that whey may even be an effective therapeutic treatment for obesity.40
When other groups of researchers set about trying to understand why whey protein supplementation works in this way, they discovered that the proteins, peptides and minerals in whey boost satiety (the feeling of fullness), influence glucose homeostasis (the regulation of blood sugar levels in the body), and optimize lean body mass, all of which help fight weight gain.41-45
In one recent study, scientists assigned 100 men with what's known as sarcopenic obesity, aged 70 or over, to one of three groups. Sarcopenic obesity is characterized by low lean mass and high fat mass. One group served as a control and received no treatment. Another used an exercise technology called whole-body electromyostimulation (WB-EMS), in which muscles are contracted with electrical impulses. The third took 1.7 grams to 1.8 grams of whey protein per kilogram of body weight, daily.10
After 16 weeks, total body fat, trunk body fat, and waist circumference were significantly reduced in the group receiving electrical stimulation and were also reduced in the group taking whey supplements, but not in the control group. Whey protein supplementation, the study concluded, can help treat obesity.10
Also, in a meta-analysis of randomized, controlled trials conducted in overweight and obese participants, investigators reported that there was a significant improvement in both body weight and total fat mass in those who supplemented with whey protein.11
Whey Helps Prevent Heart Disease
By contributing to an overall diet and exercise fitness program, whey can protect against a long list of diseases linked to increased weight gain. But whey protein has also been shown to specifically target a key risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Hypertension is one of the main factors contributing to cardiovascular disease.46 Research shows that whey-based peptides may help reduce this risk factor.47,48 (Peptides are chains of amino acids that are smaller than proteins.) And food-derived peptides like the kind found in whey are far safer than anti-hypertension drugs.
In one study, researchers asked 27 adults with mild hypertension to eat a high-fat breakfast and lunch along with 28 grams of whey protein. This was later repeated with 28 grams of calcium caseinate (a protein produced from casein in skim and sometimes 1% milk). It was again repeated with 27 grams of maltodextrin (a type of carbohydrate made from starch).5
Compared with the other supplements, whey was found to reduce systolic blood pressure, by an average of 15.2 mmHg, for up to five hours after ingestion. Compared to maltodextrin, whey improved arterial stiffness. These results all show whey's potential to improve cardiovascular risk factors.5
Another group of scientists reviewed whey's effects on the cardiovascular risk factors of overweight and obese patients. They found whey protein supplementation resulted in a reduction in body weight and reduced multiple risk factors for cardiovascular disease in those patients. Improvements were found in systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure, glucose levels, and in HDL and total cholesterol.11
Whey protein isn't just for athletes and bodybuilders. Whey supplementation has now been shown to help prevent several common effects of aging, including loss of lean muscle mass and excessive weight gain. It also lowers cardiovascular risk and blood pressure. It is a powerful tool to prevent frailty and heart disease and to boost longevity..
- Oikawa SY, McGlory C, D'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 Nutr. 2018 Nov 1;108(5):1060-8.
- Paddon-Jones D, Short KR, Campbell WW, et al. Role of dietary protein in the sarcopenia of aging. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008 May;87(5):1562s-6s.
- Pepe G, Tenore GC, Mastrocinque R, et al. Potential anticarcinogenic peptides from bovine milk. J Amino Acids. 2013;2013:939804.
- Mori H, Tokuda Y. Effect of whey protein supplementation after resistance exercise on the muscle mass and physical function of healthy older women: A randomized controlled trial. Geriatr Gerontol Int. 2018 Sep;18(9):1398-404.
- Fekete AA, Giromini C, Chatzidiakou Y, et al. Whey protein lowers systolic blood pressure and Ca-caseinate reduces serum TAG after a high-fat meal in mildly hypertensive adults. Sci Rep. 2018 Mar 22;8(1):5026.
- Niccoli S, Kolobov A, Bon T, et al. Whey Protein Supplementation Improves Rehabilitation Outcomes in Hospitalized Geriatric Patients: A Double Blinded, Randomized Controlled Trial. J Nutr Gerontol Geriatr. 2017 Oct-Dec;36(4):149-65.
- Bergia RE, 3rd, Hudson JL, Campbell WW. Effect of whey protein supplementation on body composition changes in women: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutr Rev. 2018 Jul 1;76(7):539-51.
- Ho CF, Jiao Y, Wei B, et al. Protein supplementation enhances cerebral oxygenation during exercise in elite basketball players. Nutrition. 2018 Sep;53:34-7.
- Fernandes RR, Nabuco HCG, Sugihara Junior P, et al. Effect of protein intake beyond habitual intakes following resistance training on cardiometabolic risk disease parameters in pre-conditioned older women. Exp Gerontol. 2018 Sep;110:9-14.
- Kemmler W, Kohl M, Freiberger E, et al. Effect of whole-body electromyostimulation and / or protein supplementation on obesity and cardiometabolic risk in older men with sarcopenic obesity: the randomized controlled FranSO trial. BMC Geriatr. 2018 Mar 9;18(1):70.
- Wirunsawanya K, Upala S, Jaruvongvanich V, et al. Whey Protein Supplementation Improves Body Composition and Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Overweight and Obese Patients: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. J Am Coll Nutr. 2018 Jan;37(1):60-70.
- Bumrungpert A, Pavadhgul P, Nunthanawanich P, et al. Whey Protein Supplementation Improves Nutritional Status, Glutathione Levels, and Immune Function in Cancer Patients: A Randomized, Double-Blind Controlled Trial. J Med Food. 2018 Jun;21(6):612-6.
- Tosukhowong P, Boonla C, Dissayabutra T, et al. Biochemical and clinical effects of Whey protein supplementation in Parkinson's disease: A pilot study. J Neurol Sci. 2016 Aug 15;367:162-70.
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- McCarty MF, DiNicolantonio JJ. An increased need for dietary cysteine in support of glutathione synthesis may underlie the increased risk for mortality associated with low protein intake in the elderly. Age (Dordr). 2015 Oct;37(5):96.
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