Helping Grandpa bulk up; does supplement build muscle in seniors?

It's no secret: As we age, we lose muscle mass. Studies show that adults can lose 25 percent of their muscle mass between the ages of 50 and 75. But researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Nutrition Sciences are taking a hard look at an over-the-counter supplement that might help people avoid age-related muscle loss. "As we age, we lose muscle mass and muscle function, losing both quantity and quality of muscle," said Barbara Gower, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Nutrition Sciences and co-lead investigator of a study looking at the potential role of Juven, a supplement drink made of three amino acids. "Age-related muscle loss is a leading factor in an older person's ability to live independently, and is linked to an increased risk of falls and fractures."

Juven, manufactured by Abbott Laboratories, is a blend of two amino acids — arginine and glutamine — along with a metabolite of the amino acid leucine. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and Juven is currently used to promote the growth of new tissue following surgery or treatment of wounds or pressure ulcers.

Gower and co-investigator Amy Ellis, MPH, RD., a UAB doctoral student, are looking at the potential for Juven to boost muscle mass and function, or at least block tissue loss, in seniors between the ages of 65 and 89.

Connie Richards of Birmingham is part of the Juven clinical trial. A veteran of other UAB studies, she lost her father to Alzheimer's disease, making her particularly aware of the importance of research. She and the other study participants are drinking the fruit-flavored supplement - or a placebo beverage - twice a day for six months.

She and the others will be monitored at the mid-point and at the end of the six month trial, and MRI imaging will be used to see if there has been a change in their amount of muscle. In addition, tests of physical strength and function will help determine if the drink helped improve the overall ability of muscles to function.

"Although we get these amino acids from protein foods like meats and dairy, seniors are unable to absorb or utilize amino acids from protein foods as well as younger people can," said Ellis. "This study will help us see if supplementation of these amino acids can help preserve or build muscle in seniors."

Richards is interested in maintaining her muscle mass as she ages. She also thinks participating in clinical research is just a good idea.

"It makes me feel very fulfilled," Richards said. "It's a very satisfying feeling to know that if I'm doing something that will help in research, then I've made a small contribution."

Funding for the study came from the National Institute of Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the UAB Center for Aging. Abbott Nutrition provided the supplement.