Aging may bring wisdom, but it also comes with pesky physical problems like joint pain and muscle loss. Around middle age, your body starts to become less responsive to exercise and more responsive to food, but in all the wrong ways.
There are a handful of lifestyle changes you can make to counteract—or at least soften—the frustrating side effects of getting older. A regular exercise routine and the right nutrition are must-haves, but supplements can also play a role in keeping you feeling young and healthy. One particular supplement that can be a game-changer in middle age and beyond: creatine.
What is Creatine?
Creatine is a combination of three amino acids that your body creates on a daily basis and stores in metabolically active tissues, like muscles, according to Jacob Wilson, Ph.D., C.S.C.S.*D., member of The Vitamin Shoppe Wellness Council and CEO of the Applied Science and Performance Institute.
In these tissues, creatine works to replenish cellular energy called ATP, which is needed to fuel muscle contractions and more. “Think of it as an extra fuel cell for the race car that is your muscle,” says Wilson. “While fuel is readily delivered from the main fuel tank, creatine is always ready to send in more when needed.” Your body needs creatine’s extra oomph during explosive bursts of activity that last about 15 seconds, such as sprinting, lifting something heavy, or jumping.
Since creatine is helpful in these types of activities, loads of research has been done on the benefits of supplementing with it for exercise performance, muscle strength, and muscle growth, making it a very popular supplement among athletes and fitness enthusiasts.
Creatine and Aging
Here’s where you come in, friends who want to defy aging and feel strong, healthy, and fit through your retirement years. “Though it might not be on the radar of too many middle-aged adults, creatine can definitely benefit people later in life,” says Wilson. “In fact, I would encourage older folks to supplement with creatine even more than I would younger folks.”
There are a few reasons people in their golden years should hop aboard the creatine train. Let’s break them down.
1. Strong Muscles And Ease of Movement
According to Wilson, creatine is king when it comes to supplements that can help enhance muscle size, power, and strength. And while you’re likely not looking to start lifting heavy barbells or become a pro athlete, these benefits should still matter to you. “As we age past 50 years, we routinely lose muscle and strength every single year,” explains Wilson. “Eventually, these losses in strength impact our quality of life and our ability to maintain our independence.”
As you get older, maintaining (or even building) muscle becomes less about vanity and more about your ability to live an active and free life. Creatine supports muscle mass maintenance and growth by helping you exercise more vigorously and enhancing the muscle recovery process, Wilson shares. Along with resistance training (which Wilson recommends people do at any age) and eating enough protein, it can make a real difference in your muscle health.
Even if you’re not incredibly active, take note: Some research suggests that creatine can make for increased muscle strength in older adults regardless of whether they exercised. (The evidence shows that the creatine-strength training combo is ideal, however.)
Bottom line? Whether you want to be able to chase your grandkids around the backyard or bike to the beach to watch the sunrise for years to come, preserving muscle is an absolute must—and creatine is a useful tool for doing so.
2. Healthy Bones
Research also shows that creatine supports bone strength, which is a major concern among older folks (and rightly so, as poor bone health is a huge risk factor for disability). One study, for example, found that older men who resistance trained and took creatine for 12 weeks experienced notable increases in bone mineral density. That said, a larger-scale review found that creatine supplementation supported bone density in seniors, even if they didn’t work out. The researchers concluded that creatine “thus may be a safe therapeutic strategy to help decrease loss in functional performance of everyday tasks.” So, just like preserving muscle, preserving bone makes all the difference in being able to take care of yourself and enjoy your life well into your later years.
3. Cognitive Support
Like your muscles, your brain also relies on creatine for optimal function, which is why scientists have more recently started investigating the effects of creatine supplementation on cognitive performance and as a method of supporting healthy cognition in aging, says Wilson. In fact, research shows that supplementing with creatine can actually help improve cognitive performance, especially in older adults and those who eat low-protein diets.
The reason it’s so helpful? “Tasks that require intense concentration use up a lot of ATP in the brain. Because creatine can help the body make more ATP, supplementing with it may give you a bit of a mental boost when you really need to flex your brain muscles,” registered dietitian Kim Yawitz, R.D., owner of Two Six Fitness in St. Louis, MO, previously told What’s Good.
Specifically, some studies suggest that creatine supplementation promotes memory, reasoning, and mathematical processing. It’s no wonder Wilson recommends whipping up a protein shake with added creatine before sitting down with your daily crossword or Sudoku.
4. Blood Sugar Balance
Blood sugar is a concern for people of all ages these days, but metabolic health issues are particularly prominent among older adults, with almost 30 percent of seniors in the U.S. facing diabetes. Thankfully, plenty of lifestyle modifications go a long way in supporting healthy blood sugar, and a number of supplements can support balance.
Creatine is one of these, with research suggesting that it can support glucose metabolism (a.k.a. how the body manages blood sugar) and even promote more balanced blood sugar levels after meals high in carbohydrates (both in healthy adults and those with type 2 diabetes).
How creatine does this isn’t quite crystal clear yet, but its ability to increase the activity of GLUT4, a protein that shuttles sugar from the blood into muscles, may be part of the puzzle, Yawitz says. So, while you certainly shouldn’t rely on any supplement alone to get those numbers down, adding creatine to your daily routine (which should include ample exercise and balanced eating) can help you keep your blood sugar in a good place.
How To Add Creatine To Your Routine
If you’re ready to add creatine to your stay-healthy toolbox, use these tips to make the most of its benefits.
1. Start with creatine monohydrate
You’ll find numerous types of creatine in supplements, but creatine monohydrate has, by far, the most scientific evidence behind its use, says Wilson. “On rare occasions, though, some people may experience some gastrointestinal distress,” he notes. “If this is you, opting for creatine HCl instead usually resolves this issue.”
2. Dose based on your goals
For general benefits, Wilson recommends supplementing with three to five grams of creatine monohydrate per day. (If you exercise, take your creatine right afterward, when your muscles are primed to soak it up.) However, if the cognitive benefits are your primary reason for trying creatine, he suggests taking more like five to 10 grams per day.
3. Don’t be alarmed by weight gain
“When you take creatine, it causes you to gain some water weight (potentially to the tune of one to three pounds) in the first couple of weeks,” shares Wilson.” This is simply due to the fact that your body stores creatine alongside water, as water is the medium through which creatine functions.” So if you notice the scale inch up a bit at first, don’t panic! The extra water is for a good cause.
4. Let your doctor know
Though creatine has no known long-term side effects, it may increase your blood creatinine levels, which is why Wilson recommends letting your healthcare providers know about your supplement usage prior to any blood work. “Luckily, it’s rare for creatine use to put your creatinine levels out of range, but if it does, make sure to investigate other markers of kidney health and function,” he says.
The Bottom Line
While creatine may have the reputation of being for young bucks pumping weights in the gym, it has a lot to offer long after those days have come and gone. The older you get, the more important it is that your exercise routine, diet, and supplement regimen work together to keep your body moving well, your mind firing on all cylinders, and your quality of life top-notch. Making the most of your golden years requires an all-around healthy lifestyle, and creatine can be a very helpful factor in that equation.