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New Research May Help Older Adults Retain Muscle Mass and Strength

We are what we eat—right down to our bones
New Research May Help Older Adults Retain Muscle Mass and Strength

As we age, many of us will face a number of health-related challenges. One big concern for older adults is a decrease in muscle strength (sarcopenia) and bone loss (osteoporosis). There is evidence that up to 50% of adults may suffer muscle loss as they age and further research estimates 54 million U.S. adults have low bone density or osteoporosis. Unfortunately, an osteoporotic fracture occurs every 3 seconds according to the International Osteoporosis Foundation.

The impact of these diseases on muscles and bones can be devastating, causing problems with musculoskeletal structure, balance, and walking capability all which may contribute to a greater risk of falls—the largest cause of death among older adults. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest that millions of adults over the age of 65 fall each year. And with a fall many seniors sustain severe injuries that leave them unable to care for themselves and compromise quality of life. Sadly, some may even succumb to their injuries.

Yet, despite these grim facts there is good news! Some of the loss of muscle strength and bone mass can be prevented by adjusting our actions. From my perspective, what we eat has a huge potential to greatly influence our life as it is a daily activity! One defining moment for Hebrew SeniorLife’s Institute for Aging Research (IFAR) was our study that shows older adults need more protein in their diets prompting national aging organizations to change their recommendations for dietary protein intake.

Another exciting area of our work that I believe will benefit older men and women moves beyond research of a single nutrient and toward evaluating food intake patterns. A recently published IFAR study found that a protein-rich diet may help preserve leg muscle mass and strength, which in turn could prevent falls in older adults. 

We have all read the headlines of the impact of vitamin D or calcium on bone health, or that eating a certain food will improve bone or muscle strength. But is understanding how just one nutrient impacts the body enough?  If we truly are what we eat, then aging research needs to follow by investigating what is eaten as a dietary level. The ability to improve the lives of millions of older adults is within reach—through research that helps us make informed choices in our daily lives.  

Practice what we preach. You don’t have to be a meat eater to partake in a protein-rich diet. There are plenty of delicious recipes easily accessible in cookbooks or online that incorporate meatless protein like tofu or tempeh. Try this meatless and protein-fueled recipe from Hebrew Rehabilitation Center Culinary Services Director Misha Shtivelman.   

Yields: 8 portions

Broccoli, Chopped            3 cups

Mushrooms, Sliced           1 ½ cups                                                                      

Challah Bread, Cubed       ¼ loaf

Eggs                                  8 whole + 8 whites

Low Salt Cottage Cheese         ½ cup

Skim Milk                                   ½ cup

Shredded Mozzarala, Part Skim        ½ cup

Shredded Cheddar                             ½ cup

Chopped Thyme                                   1 tsp

Chopped Garlic                                     1tsp

Salt                                                  ¼ tsp

Ground black pepper                       ¼ tsp

Pan Spray                                       just enough to coat


1.     Coat a large glass pan with cooking spray. Combine mushrooms, broccoli, and challah bread in the pan.

2.     In a separate bowl, combine all remaining ingredients until just incorporated.

3.     Pour mixture into pan over the bread, etc.

4.     To allow the bread to soak up the egg mixture, let stand for 5 minutes.

5.     Cover with plastic wrap and foil and bake in a 300F oven until firm in the middle (about 50 minutes)

6.     Uncover the pans and allow to bake for an additional 5-10 minutes to allow the tops to lightly brown.

7.     Garnish Options:  chopped fresh parsley / chopped fresh chives.

About the IFAR Musculoskeletal Research Center
The overarching objective of the Musculoskeletal Research Center at IFAR is to conduct research and disseminate findings on common musculoskeletal conditions of aging such as osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, hyperkyphosis (excessive forward curvature), sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass) and foot disorders, as well as biomechanics of the skeletal system. We promote interdisciplinary research to understand the mechanisms underlying musculoskeletal diseases. We test interventions to prevent the occurrence of disease, their progression and disabling outcomes in older adults. 

Marian T. Hannan, D.Sc., M.P.H.'s picture

About the Blogger

Senior Scientist, Research Interests and Teaching Activities

Primary research interests focus on understanding the etiology of musculoskeletal diseases and interventions for osteoporosis, specifically: 1) the epidemiology of age-related osteoporosis and arthritis; 2) the influence of foot disorders on physical function and falls; and 3) the influence of dietary and other risk factors on bone loss in elders. Dr. Hannan is the principal investigator on a number of NIH grants and has had continuous NIH funding since 1996. As an epidemiologist, Dr. Hannan collaborates closely with other investigators in the large musculoskeletal unit at HSL, using the...

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I would like to know if it can be reversed?
Hi Lori, this is an excellent question and one that we suggest asking of your primary care physician, or a geriatric specialist. They should be able to tell you whether there is anything one can do to regain lost muscle mass/ strength as it applies to your unique health. --Erica, Hebrew SeniorLife Social Media Team

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