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Keeping old muscles young with nutrition

Postdoctoral researcher, Dr Caoileann Murphy launched the NUTRIMAL project blog this autumn to give members of the public an insight into what a human research study entails. The NUTRIMAL project is an ongoing research study in UCD that is investigating whether a new, food-based nutrition supplement could help slow the loss of muscle and strength with age.

“The purpose of this blog is to provide a ‘behind the scenes’ look at the NUTRIMAL project – bringing people with us on the journey from recruiting participants to publishing our findings!” says Dr Murphy. “Conducting a research study is never straightforward and there are plenty of not-so-glamorous aspects people don’t think about! For example, when we had to carry 1000 kg worth of study drinks up two flights of stairs because there is no lift in our building!

Nutrimal project blog

As well as anecdotes, the blog will feature information and photographs showing how the research team measure muscle mass and strength, interviews with participants and videos of project presentations .” This blog may be of interest to prospective NUTRIMAL project participants, anyone thinking about pursuing a career in research, or anyone interested in science, nutrition and healthy aging.

The NUTRIMAL project aims to find out whether a drink containing both milk protein and fish oil can improve muscle mass and strength in older men and women who already have low muscle mass and/or strength. Researchers are recruiting 120 adults aged 65 and over and have already enrolled 30 participants.

Participants are asked to drink a nutritional supplement, which comes in the form of a fruit-flavored beverage, twice per day for 6 months. “We measure muscle mass, strength and physical performance (i.e. balance, walking speed, ability to rise from a chair) before the participants start the supplements and again after 3 months and 6 months to see if they have improved” says Dr Murphy.

“Beginning in our forties, we lose approximately 1% of our muscle every year. For an average man, that is the equivalent of losing a 10 ounce steak worth of muscle every year! The loss of muscle mass is accompanied by an even faster loss of strength, which can make daily activities like walking and rising from a chair more difficult.

Sarcopenia – the loss of muscle mass and function that occurs with age - is a big problem because it increases the risk of physical disability, falls and hospitalisation” says Dr. Murphy. “It’s critical that we identify strategies to preserve muscle in order to help older adults maintain their independence and quality of life as they age.”

Previous research shows that nutrition plays an important role in determining how quickly we lose muscle with age. In particular, protein (found in foods like meat, fish, milk, yogurt, eggs, lentils and beans) is critical for our muscles. Following a meal or snack that contains protein such as drinking a glass of milk, the protein in the milk is broken down and used to build new muscle.

Within three hours of drinking a glass of milk, the protein it contains is actually in the muscle. You quite literally are what you just ate! However, with age, we get a little less efficient at taking the protein out of foods and using it to build muscle. Ongoing research, such as the NUTRIMAL project, is trying to find out how older adults can become better at using protein in the diet to build muscle.

The NUTRIMAL blog is available online at: https://nutrimalproject.com. Adults over 65 years of age interested in participating in the research study should click: https://nutrimalproject.com/contact-us/

For further information please contact Dr Caoileann Murphy, Postdoctoral Research Dietitian, University College Dublin [E: nutrimal@ucd.ie; T: 085-124-4080].


The NUTRIMAL project is has received funding from the Irish Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (14F 882), European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie SkÅ‚odowska-Curie grant agreement No 666010 and the European Society of Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism (ESPEN) under the 2017 ESPEN Fellowship programme.

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