Health & Fitness

Fruit a day keeps muscles in top shape in old age

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older people who eat plenty of vitamin C - commonly found in citrus fruits, berries and vegetables - have the best skeletal muscle mass. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

Summary

  • For physical strength and ability, the body relies on skeletal muscles, which exist throughout the body. These are the only type that people can voluntarily control.
  • According to new research conducted by scientists from the University of East Anglia (UEA), older people who eat plenty of vitamin C - commonly found in citrus fruits, berries and vegetables - have the best skeletal muscle mass.

Muscles enable people to be active and to effectively undertake daily activities. They help with movement, maintaining posture and supporting key body functions.

The smooth muscles found in internal organs - such as the brain, liver or kidneys - are essential for survival. For instance, they boost our thinking capacity and help rid the body of harmful substances.

Cardiac muscles, on the other hand, enhance proper functioning of the heart, making people breath and live.

But for physical strength and ability, the body relies on skeletal muscles, which exist throughout the body. These are the only type that people can voluntarily control.

They play a key role in the movement of various body joints thus allowing people to walk, run and lift objects. This greatly impacts people's quality of life and confidence as it allows them to perform tasks independently and efficiently.

Despite their significant role, skeletal muscles do not stay in 'top shape' throughout people's lives. They tend to weaken and reduce in mass as people grow older.

Once this happens, various forms of disability begin to creep in, which greatly affects people's body balance, posture and mobility.

To slow down muscle degeneration and minimise the loss of muscle mass, studies have shown that targeted exercises that strengthen skeletal muscles are important. They include cycling, weight lifting, push-ups, sit-ups, squats, planks and crunches.

While so much focus has been given on the effect of exercises on muscle strength, there is still low awareness on the role that nutrition plays in preventing muscle loss, as people grow older.

A recent study published in the Journal of Nutrition indicates that Vitamin C could be the key to better muscles in later life.

According to new research conducted by scientists from the University of East Anglia (UEA), older people who eat plenty of vitamin C - commonly found in citrus fruits, berries and vegetables - have the best skeletal muscle mass.

This is important because people tend to lose skeletal muscle mass as they get older, leading to a condition known as sarcopenia that is characterised by loss of muscle function, frailty and a reduced quality of life.

"As people age, they lose skeletal muscle mass and strength. People over 50 lose up to one per cent of their skeletal muscle mass each year, and this loss is thought to affect more than 50 million people worldwide," said Prof Ailsa Welch, the lead researcher of the study from UEA's Norwich Medical School.

He stated: "It's a big problem, because it can lead to frailty and other poor outcomes such as physical disability, type 2 diabetes, reduced quality of life and death."

The researchers noted that the consumption of vitamin C is known to defend body cells and tissues from potentially harmful substances that can contribute to the destruction of muscle, thus speeding up age-related decline.

"But until now, few studies have investigated the importance of vitamin C intake for older people. We wanted to find out whether people eating more vitamin C had more muscle mass than others," noted Prof Welch.

During the study, the research team analysed data from more than 13,000 people aged between 42 and 82 years who took part in a European nutrition study.

The scientists calculated the skeletal muscle mass of the participants and analysed their vitamin C intakes from a seven-day food diary. They also examined the amount of vitamin C in their blood.

"We studied a large sample of older residents and found that people with the highest amounts of vitamin C in their diet or blood had the greatest estimated skeletal muscle mass, compared to those with the lowest amounts,” said Dr Richard Hayhoe from UEA's Norwich Medical School.

He noted: "We are very excited by our findings as they suggest that dietary vitamin C is important for muscle health in older men and women and may be useful for preventing age-related muscle loss.”

Dr Hayhoe stated that since vitamin C is readily available in fruits, vegetables or supplements, improving its intake among older people is relatively straightforward.”

"We're not talking about people needing mega-doses. Eating a citrus fruit, such as an orange, each day and having a vegetable side to a meal will be sufficient for most people."