The population of Ireland is ageing to such an extent that currently there are 637,567 people aged 65 and older, accounting for 13 percent of the total population.1 This increased longevity is a positive outcome for the country, yet while many are living healthier lives into old age, this is not universal. The potential challenges faced by an ageing population include health, social, and economic difficulties, each of which may result in loss of independence, decreased social interaction and ultimately reduced quality of life.
Our primary goal in Food for Health Ireland’s (FHI) healthy ageing programme at the University of Limerick (UL) is to provide scientific evidence for the development of food products which support healthy, active and fulfilling ageing for all. Of particular importance is maintenance of independence. Central to our Healthy Ageing and Performance Nutrition (HAPN) work programme is the knowledge that maintaining muscle and bone health throughout the lifespan is correlated with a positive health status. Two conditions which may impact on independent living are of particular interest to our research—osteoporosis and sarcopenia. Osteoporosis is a systemic skeletal disease characterised by low bone mass, resulting in increased bone fragility and susceptibility to fracture.2 Sarcopenia is defined as a slow and progressive loss of muscle mass associated with ageing.3 Both conditions represent an impaired state of health with a high personal toll, and consequently may be associated with an increased risk of falls and fractures, loss of independence and mobility disorders.4
Our research focuses on the efficacy of using milk-based proteins to discover optimal outcomes in relation to skeletal muscle protein synthesis (the body's ongoing growth, repair, and maintenance of skeletal muscle). Protein consumption has been shown to be an important factor in the prevention of sarcopenia and osteoporosis. Milk proteins contain a high proportion of high quality amino acids that are essential for the growth and repair of lean tissue mass and therefore act as a substrate for protein synthesis.
Prof Phil Jakeman and Dr Brian Carson lead the multidisciplinary FHI team at UL, which comprises dieticians Dr Catherine Norton and Marta Kozior, exercise physiologists Hilkka Kontro and Rob Davies, cell biologists Dr Bijal Patel and Dr Miryam Amigo-Benavent, clinical nurse Elaine Ahern and physiotherapist Roisin McGinley. Each team member contributes unique skillsets and competencies, working together to achieve research objectives. We believe that our successful team structure enables us to provide the scientific evidence for the development of new products to support healthy, active living for our ageing population.
We have previously shown simple daily ingestion of milk-based proteins can have an effect in not only slowing the decline in muscle mass, but in increasing muscle mass.5 Our studies investigate the effects of dairy-based proteins on muscle mass and function and bone mineral density in sarcopenic and osteopenic men and women aged 50 to 70 years old. We hope, informed by our research, development of consumer products which can address these issues in our ageing population will have real societal and commercial impact.
(1). Central Statistical Office, (2016). Available at http://www.cso.ie/en/.
(2). Jean-Yves Reginster, Charlotte Beaudart, Fanny Buckinx, Olivier Bruye Osteoporosis and sarcopenia: two diseases or one? Ageing: biology and nutrition 2016 19(1.)
(3). Bowen, T., Schuler, G., & Adams, V. (2015). Skeletal muscle wasting in cachexia and sarcopenia: Molecular pathophysiology and impact of exercise training. Journal of Cachexia, Sarcopenia and Muscle, 6(3), 197-207.
(4). Sarcopenia: European consensus on definition and diagnosis: Report of the European Working Group on Sarcopenia in Older People
(5). Norton, C., Toomey, C., Mccormack, W., Francis, P., Saunders, J., Kerin, E., & Jakeman, P. (2016). Protein Supplementation at Breakfast and Lunch for 24 Weeks beyond Habitual Intakes Increases Whole-Body Lean Tissue Mass in Healthy Older Adults. The Journal of Nutrition, 146(1), 65-9.