After age 30, adults may lose between 3% to 8% muscle mass each decade, and the rate of muscle loss may accelerate after age 60 (Volpi, Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care 2018). Also known as sarcopenia, age-related progressive loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength may increase the risk of falls and has been associated with increased mortality.
Some supplements may help to slow the loss of muscle as we age, although some have shown benefit only if combined with resistance exercise.
Read below for details about supplements that may help and some that might not.
The Best Evidence of Benefits:
Many older adults do not get enough protein from their diets. Research shows that increasing protein intake, along with resistance exercise, can help to build and maintain age-related muscle loss. However, be aware that simply increasing protein intake, without exercise, does not help.
All meats provide complete protein, providing all the amino acids needed for making muscle and in good balance, although some, such as fish, are more healthful than others, such as red meat, due to the type of fat they contain. Plant-based foods can also provide protein and build muscle, although, individually they may not provide the optimal ratio of amino acids.
Protein powders and protein drinks and shakes can also be good sources of protein. In general, whey protein is a great all-around protein for building and maintaining muscle and it contains all the essential amino acids. Be aware that it's made from milk, so it will naturally contain small amounts of fat, cholesterol and lactose. You can lower the amounts of these substances by choosing a whey isolate, which essentially isolates the whey protein from these other components. Whey and whey isolates taste somewhat like powdered milk. If you have trouble digesting protein or want to absorb it quicker, you can choose a whey hydrolysate in which the protein is pre-digested. Just be aware that hydrolysates can be somewhat bitter.
Weak or No Evidence:
Several studies suggest that fish oil can modestly improve muscle strength among older adults, particularly older women. It might also slightly reduce the risk of falls, but there is conflicting evidence about whether fish oil helps maintain muscle mass.
See the Muscle, Strength and Falls section of our Fish Oil Supplements Review details, as well as Top Picks among fish, krill, and algal oil supplements.
Supplementation with moderate doses of vitamin D may improve muscle mass and strength in older adults with very low levels of vitamin D. Vitamin D supplementation does not appear to be beneficial among older adults who already have adequate levels of vitamin D, and getting too much vitamin D has been shown to decrease muscle strength, and increase the risk of falls.
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAS)
Supplementation with BCAAS (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) has not been shown to help prevent age-related muscle loss, even among women who participated in regular exercise resistance training. It may slightly reduce loss of muscle mass and strength in middle-aged adults during prolonged bed rest (such as when recovering from surgery or a broken leg), although any potential benefit appears to be small, and findings from studies have been mixed.
For details, see the BCAAs section of our Muscle & Workout Supplements Review. Also see our Top Picks among BCAA supplements.
Some studies have shown supplementation with creatine to increase muscle size or strength in older adults when combined with resistance training. However, not all studies have shown a benefit, and creatine supplementation, without resistance exercise, does not appear to help.
There is some evidence that urolithin A, a compound that occurs naturally in the digestive tract in some people, but is also produced and sold as a supplement, may improve some measures of muscle strength and function in older adults. However, these studies were company funded, and, due to their small size and mixed results, more research is needed to prove a benefit.
For details, see our article about urolithin A.