Do Omega-3s Prevent Age-Related Muscle Loss?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Exercise, Supplements and Health

Does Fish Oil Build Muscle?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

omega-3Omega-3-rich fish oil supplements have attracted their share of controversy in recent years, but there appear to be lots of reasons to make sure that you get enough omega-3s from your diet.

There is actually pretty good evidence that omega-3s offer a natural approach for people who wish to lower their blood pressure (https://healthtipsfromtheprofessor.com/do-omega-3s-lower-blood-pressure/) or heart attack risk (https://healthtipsfromtheprofessor.com/fish-oil-really-snake-oil/). There is also some evidence that omega-3s may be important for brain development in infants (J Protzko et al, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8: 25-40, 2013), for mental performance in children (https://healthtipsfromtheprofessor.com/omega-3s-improve-reading-skills/) and for preventing cognitive decline in the elderly (https://healthtipsfromtheprofessor.com/omega-3s-slow-cognitive-decline/).

If the latest headlines are to be believed, we can add preventing age-related muscle loss to the benefits of an omega-3-rich diet.

Why Is Age-Related Loss of Muscle Mass a Problem?

The term for age-related muscle loss is sarcopenia, and it is a big problem for older adults. After age 50 we lose 1-2% of our muscle mass each year. As you might expect, our strength declines as well. Each 1% loss of muscle mass translates into about 1.5% loss in strength. That means after age 50 we lose 1.5% of our muscle strength each year, and once we hit 60 the rate of loss increases to around 3% per year.

That may not sound like much on an annual basis, but it adds up over time. With a little bit of higher math you can calculate that you could easily have lost 45% of your muscle strength by the age of 70 and a whopping 75% by the age of 80. At that point even the simplest physical activities – lifting a grandchild or a bag of groceries – can become challenging. That loss of strength also contributes to a loss of balance that can lead to debilitating falls.

The most effective way of preventing age-related muscle loss is regular resistance training, especially when coupled with adequate intake of protein and leucine (https://healthtipsfromtheprofessor.com/protein-needs-for-older-adults/). However, resistance training is hard work, so many older adults gravitate to quick fixes like testosterone, growth hormone, or DHEA – even though each of those treatment regimens have significant side effects and risks.

That’s why the recent headlines suggesting that a risk-free approach like omega-3 supplementation might increase muscle mass and strength in older adults is so enticing.

Do Omega-3s Prevent Age-Related Muscle Loss?

A previous study had suggested that omega-3 supplementation enhanced the effect of strength training in elderly women (Rodacki et al, AJCN, 95: 428-436, 2012). Although the mechanism of that effect is unclear, the authors of this study decided to go one step further. They asked if omega-3 fatty acids might prevent loss of muscle mass even in the elderly in the absence of a structured exercise program (Smith et al, AJCN, doi: 10.3945/ajcn.114.105833, 2015).

age-related muscle lossThe study consisted of 44 men and women age 60-85 (average age 69) who were not exercising on a regular basis. They were given either 4 gm of fish oil (containing 1.86 gm of EPA and 1.5 gm of DHA) or a placebo containing corn oil each day for 6 months. Muscle mass and four measures of muscle strength were performed at the beginning of the study and again at 6 months. The measures used were thigh muscle volume (a measure of muscle mass), hand grip strength, overall muscle strength (the maximum weight that the subject could lift in a single repetition for leg press, chest press, knee extension, and knee flexion) and isokinetic power (the power attained in knee extension and flexion exercises). The results were pretty impressive for the omega-3 group compared with the control group:

  • Thigh muscle volume (muscle mass) increased by 3.6%
  • Handgrip strength increased by 6%.
  • Overall muscle strength increased by 4%.
  • Isokinetic power increased by 5.6%.
  • Other than complaints about fishy breath, there were no adverse effects in the omega-3 group.
  • The authors calculated that the increase in muscle mass and strength during 6 months of omega-3 supplementation was sufficient to offset 2-3 years of normal age-related muscle loss and strength loss.
  • The increase in muscle mass and strength associated with omega-3 supplementation was less than can be attained from regular resistance exercise coupled with adequate protein intake. However, it was the same or greater than could be obtained from testosterone, growth hormone or DHEA – and didn’t have the risks associated with those treatments.

For example, a recent study has concluded that testosterone injections are associated with a significant risk of stroke, acute coronary syndromes, hospitalization and death (Layton et al, JAMA Internal Medicine, doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.1573).

The authors concluded ”Fish oil-derived omega-3 therapy slows the normal decline in muscle mass and function in older adults and should be considered a therapeutic approach for preventing sarcopenia and maintaining physical independence in older adults.”

Limitations of the Study

Before you all run out and stock up on fish oil supplements, I should point out that this study has several limitations.

  • It is a very small study. It needs to be replicated by future studies.
  • It used a very high dose of fish oil (4 gm/day). High doses are often used in an initial study like this one just to establish whether there is an effect worth further study. However, this study needs to be repeated at lower doses to see if this benefit of omega-3 supplementation is also seen at more physiological doses (500 – 1,000 mg) of omega-3s.

Because of these limitations, I am not yet ready to agree with the authors that omega-3 supplementation “…should be considered a therapeutic approach for preventing sarcopenia and maintaining physical independence in older adults.” This is an interesting finding that holds the promise of an inexpensive, risk-free, natural approach for maintaining muscle mass in older adults, but it needs to be verified by future studies before it can be widely recommended.

There are many reasons to supplement with omega-3s, but at this point in time I would definitely not recommend fish oil supplementation as an alternative to resistance exercise and adequate protein intake for older adults who wish to prevent age-related loss of muscle mass and strength.

However, the health risks of testosterone, growth hormone, and DHEA supplementation are significant. For someone who is absolutely set on pursuing an exercise-free solution to maintaining muscle mass and strength as they age, I would recommend omega-3 supplementation first rather one of the riskier alternatives.

 

The Bottom Line

  • A recent study has suggested that omega-3 supplementation may prevent age-related loss of muscle mass and strength. The study was performed in both men and women age 60-85 who were not exercising on a regular basis.
  • Omega-3 supplementation was less effective than regular resistance exercise coupled with adequate protein intake, but equal to or greater in effectiveness than testosterone, growth hormone, or DHEA treatment.
  • This was a very small study and it used a very high dose of omega-3s. It is a promising finding because it represents an inexpensive, risk-free, natural approach for maintaining muscle mass in older adults, but it needs to be verified by future studies before it can be widely recommended.
  • There are many good reasons to supplement with omega-3s, but at this point in time I would definitely not recommend fish oil supplementation as an alternative to resistance exercise and adequate protein intake for older adults who wish to prevent age-related loss of muscle mass and strength. Resistance training combined with adequate protein is a proven intervention. Omega-3 supplementation is not.
  • However, the health risks of testosterone, growth hormone, and DHEA supplementation are significant. For someone who is absolutely set on pursuing an exercise-free solution to maintaining muscle mass and strength as they age, I would recommend omega-3 supplementation first rather one of the riskier alternatives. It might just work, and it is a lot less risky.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (2)

  • Joanne Larson

    |

    You mentioned possible risks using dhea What are those risks?

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Joanne,

      DHEA is an immediate precursor to both estrogen and testosterone, so the potential side effects are the same as for those hormones. I would be most concerned about cancer.

      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

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Latest Article

Can Plant-based Diets Be Unhealthy?

Posted September 10, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

plant-based diets vegetablesPlant-based diets have become the “Golden Boys” of the diet world. They are the diets most often recommended by knowledgeable health and nutrition professionals. I’m not talking about all the “Dr. Strangeloves” who pitch weird diets in books and the internet. I am talking legitimate experts who have spent their life studying the impact of nutrition on our health.

Certainly, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claim that plant-based diets are healthy. Going on a plant-based diet can help you lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol and triglycerides. People who consume a plant-based diet for a lifetime weigh less and have decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But, can a plant-based diet be unhealthy? Some people consider a plant-based diet to simply be the absence of meat and other animal foods. Is just replacing animal foods with plant-based foods enough to make a diet healthy?

Maybe not. After all, sugar and white flour are plant-based food ingredients. Fake meats of all kinds abound in our grocery stores. Some are very wholesome, but others are little more than vegetarian junk food. If you replace animal foods with plant-based sweets, desserts, and junk food, is your diet really healthier?

While the answer to that question seems obvious, very few studies have asked that question. Most studies on the benefits of plant-based diets have compared population groups that eat a strictly plant-based diet (Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans, or vegetarians) with the general public. They have not looked at variations in plant food consumption within the general public. Nor have they compared people who consume healthy and unhealthy plant foods.

This study (H Kim et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8:e012865, 2019) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

plant-based diets studyThis study used data collected from 12,168 middle aged adults in the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) study between 1987 and 2016.

The participant’s usual intake of foods and beverages was assessed by trained interviewers using a food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study and again 6 years later.

Participants were asked to indicate the frequency with which they consumed 66 foods and beverages of a defined serving size in the previous year. Visual guides were provided to help participants estimate portion sizes.

The participant’s adherence to a plant-based diet was assessed using four different well-established plant-based diet scores. For the sake of simplicity, I will include 3 of them in this review.

  • The PDI (Plant-Based Diet Index) categorizes foods as either plant foods or animal foods. A high PDI score means that the participant’s diet contains more plant foods than animal foods. A low PDI score means the participant’s diet contains more animal foods than plant foods.
  • The hPDI (healthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “healthy” plant foods. A high hPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) and low in animal foods.
  • The uPDI (unhealthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “unhealthy” plant foods. A high uPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) and low in animal foods.

For statistical analysis the scores from the various plant-based diet indices were divided into 5 equal groups. In each case, the group with the highest score consumed the most plant foods and least animal foods. The group with the lowest score consumed the least plant foods and the most animal foods.

The health outcomes measured in this study were heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and all-cause deaths. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will only include 2 of these outcomes (heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths) in this review. The data on deaths were obtained from state death records and the National Death Index. (Yes, your personal information is available on the web even after you die.)

 

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

plant-based diets reduce heart deathsThe participants in this study were followed for an average of 25 years.

The investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years and compared people with the highest intake of plant foods to people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods. The results were:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

What Else Did The Study Show?

The investigators made a couple of other interesting observations:

  • The association of the overall diet with heart disease and all-cause deaths was stronger than the association of individual food components. This underscores the importance of looking at the effect of the whole diet on health outcomes rather than the “magic” foods you hear about on Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog.
  • Diets with the highest amount of healthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of carbohydrates, plant protein, fiber, and micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Diets with the highest amount of unhealthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of calories and carbohydrates and lower intake of fiber and micronutrients.

The last two observations may help explain some of the health benefits of plant-based diets.

 

Can Plant-Based Diets Be Unhealthy?

plant-based diets unhealthy cookiesNow, let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: “Can plant-based diets be unhealthy?” Although some previous studies have suggested that unhealthy plant-based diets might increase the risk of heart disease, this study did not show that.

What this study did show was that an unhealthy plant-based diet was no better for you than a diet containing lots of red meat and other animal foods.

If this were the only conclusion from this study, it might be considered a neutral result. However, this result clearly contrasts with the data from this study and many others showing that both plant-based diets in general and healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths compared to animal-based diets.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

There is one other subtle message from this study. This study did not compare vegans with the general public. Everyone in the study was the general public. Nobody in the study was consuming a 100% plant-based diet.

For example:

  • The group with the highest intake of plant foods consumed 9 servings per day of plant foods and 3.6 servings per day of animal foods.
  • The group with the lowest intake of plant foods consumed 5.4 servings per day of plant foods and 5.6 servings per day of animal foods.

In other words, you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study analyzed the effect of consuming plant foods on heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths over a 25-year period.

When the investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

A more subtle message from the study is that you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet. The people in this study were not following some special diet. The only difference was that some of the people in this study ate more plant foods and others more animal foods.

For more details on the study, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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