The quality of life and independence of the elderly (aged 60 years or more) is highly dependent on muscle and bone health. The loss of muscle mass and function with advanced age causes physical frailty and ever-reduced mobility. Sadly, from middle aged onwards, muscle mass declines at a rate of around 0.5–1% per year in humans. A new study from Smith et al. provided a daily intervention of 1.86 g eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and 1.5 g docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) for six months to a cohort of 60–85-year-old people. Muscle mass and a variety of key muscle functions were tested before and after the intervention. The intervention group showed increased thigh muscle volume (3.6%), handgrip strength (2.3 kg) and one repetition maximum muscle strength (4%).The overall average increase in isokinetic muscle power was 5.6%.
Fish oils have been used in therapy to reduce the progress of muscle wasting (cachexia) in cancer patients for many years, but this is the first large-scale study to show benefit in healthy elderly adult subjects. The mechanism behind these benefits is as yet unknown, but we know from animal experiments that marine omega-3 fatty acids can increase the rate of muscle protein synthesis whilst reducing the rate of muscle breakdown.