By: Talking Nutrition Editors
Up to 40% of people worldwide suffer from sarcopenia,5 defined as ‘a muscle disease rooted in adverse muscle changes that accrue across a lifetime’ that is common among older adults.1 Due to increasing life expectancy, with an estimated 22% of the world's population over 60 years of age by 2050, this number is projected to grow.2 Risk factors for sarcopenia include advanced age, physical inactivity, obesity and chronic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis or cancer. Sarcopenia reduces mobility, surgical outcomes, immune function and increases healthcare costs, length of hospital stays and even mortality.6,7
The rate of muscle loss varies between men and women, though the latter generally have lower muscle mass, strength and physical function at any given age throughout their lifetime.8,9 Due to decreased muscle satellite cell proliferation, increased inflammatory marker levels, and altered sex hormone levels, older women are at a 20% greater risk of sarcopenia-related mobility conditions than men.10,11 Given the significant impact of sarcopenia on wellbeing and quality of life, there is an evident need for nutritional management strategies to address this condition – especially in women.
The anti-inflammatory effects of the omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) EPA and DHA may help maintain muscle mass and reduce the risk of developing sarcopenia as well as its debilitating effects on mobility.12 A new clinical study found that fish oil (containing PUFAs) supplementation was effective in helping to increase muscle strength and physical performance in sarcopenic older women when combined with a resistance exercise program.4 While physical training helped to increase muscle strength and mass for all women in the study, those supplemented daily with fish oil saw a trend toward higher increments in peak muscle strength and mass over a 14-week period.
The researchers posited that the use of fish oil supplements, which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, strengthens the neuromuscular response to exercise to help increase muscle strength and physical performance. The authors suggest the initial gains in muscle strength could be attributed to the neural adjustment that occurs in the first weeks of training, followed by an increase in muscle mass. This means that while resistance training is key in increasing strength and muscle mass in the sarcopenic elderly, the beneficial effects of resistance exercise training in sarcopenic older women are notably enhanced by omega-3 PUFA supplementation.4
A recent meta-analysis of 123 clinical studies also found a positive association of fish oil supplementation with overall body muscle mass, volume, function and strength – specifically in the areas of lean body mass, skeletal muscle mass and quadriceps maximal voluntary capacity.13 DHA and EPA could help to reduce the risk and mitigate the progression of sarcopenia by targeting the age-related low-grade inflammation that contributes to disease development. Omega-3 PUFAs may also promote muscle strength and function by modulating muscle protein synthesis.12 Supplementation with EPA and DHA may therefore provide a safe, simple and low-cost intervention to manage sarcopenia-related mobility conditions.
Alongside these promising results, researchers have identified a need for further research and larger trials in at-risk populations to strengthen the evidence and applicability of these findings for sarcopenia prevention. Nonetheless, the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 PUFAs have been established in many animal and clinical studies.14,15,16 Given that sarcopenia and many other human diseases and conditions such as cognitive impairment, arthritis and cancer involve chronic inflammation, DHA and EPA demonstrate significant potential in maintaining muscle mass.17
To learn more about the latest science on the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA and how specialized medical nutrition solutions can support quality of life for patients and the elderly, download our whitepaper.