One of our greatest health challenges as we age is maintaining muscle mass and functionality in order to retain our mobility as long as possible. That’s why strength training and proper diet may be even more important for the elderly and why there is tremendous interest in finding compounds that might help older trainees build muscle. One supplement that holds potential on that front is β-hydroxy-β-methylbutyrate, or HMB.
HMB is a metabolite of the branched-chain amino acid leucine, which has been shown help enhance protein synthesis AND reduce proteolysis, or muscle breakdown. Subsequent studies have found that much of leucine’s proteolysis effect is due to HMB benefits, which also improves protein synthesis.
By working on both sides of the protein equation, HMB should help us stay in a state of positive nitrogen balance, where we’re positioned to build muscle.
That’s the theory, but does it play out that way in reality? And does it work for elderly trainees, too?
What the Science Says
With Baby Boomers now moving full-force into their senior years, the question of maintaining muscle has never been more relevant, and the scientific community is scurrying to find answers. Not surprisingly, HMB benefits focus of several related studies.
In a 2009 study out of Iowa, for example, researchers examined the effects of HMB, L-arginine, and L-lysine on 77 men and women with an average age of 76 over the course of a year. At the end of the observation period, the supplement group had increased their lean body mass by an average of 1.2%, while a placebo group saw no increases.
A 2012 literature review looked to previous studies to try and identify trends among elderly people supplementing with HMB. The reviewers concluded that there were many individual studies which do, indeed, indicate a benefit in terms of retained or increased muscle mass for older HMB users, but also pointed out that many studies showed no specific benefits of supplementation. The authors also note that many of the papers they reviewed did not focus specifically on muscle mass changes in the elderly, so experiment design may have affected results.
Similarly, an earlier (2008) review found mixed results when it comes to muscle mass and strength in elderly users of HMB, with some experiencing little effect, but some reporting significant gains. There was a consistent improvement in “get-up-and-go” test results in the papers reviewed, though, suggesting a benefit in terms of mobility, if nothing else.
We’re All Different
The results of the current research into HMB use among the elderly are encouraging, but not entirely consistent. Part of the discrepancy is certainly due to individual differences, which tend to be even more exaggerated as we enter into our later years. Some folks are still strong and healthy well into their 80s or after, while others are nearly immobilized by illness or injuries in their 60s or before.
Anyone considering HMB supplementation should consult with his physician(s) beforehand to avoid unwanted complications, and that is especially true for older people who may already be taking a wide range of medicines. If you can tolerate it, though, HMB seems to hold promise for those hoping to add some years to their vitality.