Consuming more protein than current dietary guidelines suggest may be beneficial to older adults when it comes to their bone health and risk of fractures, according to a new study published in The Journals of Gerontology: Series A.
The study authors wrote that past research has suggested that older adults may need more dietary protein than U.S. dietary guidelines recommend for optimal bone health. For this study, they looked at data from a group of 2,160 white and Black older adults, with an average age of 73.5, who lived in their community (not in a care facility or other institution). Each participant received bone mineral density scans of several areas of their body, both at the start of the study and either four or five years later. During this follow-up period, reports of any bone fractures due to fragility were collected every six months. The researchers assessed participants’ protein intake based on a detailed food frequency questionnaire.
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Higher protein intake linked to lower fracture risk
For purposes of analysis, all participants were divided into three groups of equal size based on how much protein they consumed. The researchers found that compared with the group with the lowest protein intake, the highest-protein-intake group had 1.8% to 6.0% higher average hip and lumbar (lower spine) bone mineral density measurements, as well as higher average measurements throughout the body. Protein intake wasn’t related to any change in bone mineral density, at any area of the body, during the follow-up period. But the highest-protein-intake group experienced a 64% lower risk of fractures in their spinal vertebrae during five years of follow-up, compared with the lowest-protein-intake group.
There are important limitations to this study, starting with the fact that it only observed what happened in people with different protein intakes. There could have been important differences between people who consumed more versus less protein, such as general nutrition awareness or even different levels of physical activity that weren’t accounted for in the study. And the fact that a higher protein intake didn’t appear to protect against changes to bone mineral density in participants during the follow-up period — it’s typical for bone density to be reduced as people get older — sheds some doubt as to whether protein intake plays a significant role in bone density, even if a higher intake does reduce the risk of vertebral fractures.
Still, a 64% lower risk of vertebral fractures is a major difference, and suggests that older people may want to consider focusing on getting enough protein — possibly more than dietary guidelines suggest as the minimum — to reduce their fracture risk. More research is needed, the study authors noted, to more fully understand this connection.
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