Protein and accelerated ageing link investigated

Angus Hunter
Dr Angus Hunter is leading the research.

A new University of Stirling study is aiming to discover whether protein deficiency in older black South Africans contributes to accelerated ageing, increased frailty and disease.

The landmark research, conducted by experts from the Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport, will provide an important insight and data on the previously unexplored issue.

Funded through the Medical Research Council Global Challenges Research Fund and led by Dr Angus Hunter, Reader in Exercise Physiology, the study will also involve the University of Cape Town.

“The effect of diet and food security is unexplored in elderly South Africans,” Dr Hunter explained. “It is anticipated that this study will produce extremely useful data to inform on health requirements, nutrition requirements and financial constraints for older black South Africans.

“These data will also be extremely valuable for larger scale studies to assess the health effectiveness of altering diet in this population.”

South Africa has an ageing population and an increasing prevalence of non-communicable diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases and obesity.

In addition, the population also suffers from a high rate of infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS.  While HIV medications prolong life, they also speed up the ageing process – with many individuals physically older than their biological age, to the extent that a typical 50-year-old patient is considered an older person in need of care.

To exacerbate the problem, in older people, muscle becomes smaller and weaker leading to frailty and decreased quality of life.

Dr Hunter’s team is investigating whether a lack of protein in the diets of those living in South African townships is accelerating muscle wasting in the elderly.

“We know that, in South African townships, people under 65 do not eat enough protein,” Dr Hunter said. “This is due to relatively high costs of protein, typically from animals and dairy products, and, as such, it’s likely that ageing muscle decline and frailty will be accelerated in the elderly, resulting in decreased overall health, reduced mobility increasing disease rates, economic demands on healthcare systems and premature death.”

He added: “Frailty and lifestyle diseases in elderly black South Africans could be reduced by a healthy diet, especially adequate protein.”

Dr Hunter believes, once his work is complete, it could help healthcare workers in townships provide dietary advice to those aged between 65 and 85.

The study will assess the feasibility and validity of assessing dietary intake in the population and seek to understand to what extent that black elderly South Africans are protein deficient. It will also consider whether a lower protein intake contributes to accelerated ageing, increased frailty and disease, and how much money the individuals can afford to spend on food for themselves.

The team will include two Postdoctoral researchers in South Africa and two Xhosa speaking field workers. They will recruit 150 individuals aged between 65 and 85 – both male and female in the Cape Town township of Khayelitsha over 12 months. They will record dietary details of participants and validate their protein intake through urine tests.

Laboratory based measurements will also be carried out at the University of Cape Town to assess muscle quality, frailty and risk of developing metabolic disease.

The team will also use recently developed measurement tools to assess the food budgets of those living in the township.

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