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Energy Boost for the Elderly?

My father is nearly 80 years old and seems to be getting weaker and weaker. Are there any supplements you can recommend that might help boost his energy?

Answer (Published 2/18/2014)

Originally published March 24, 2005. Updated February 18, 2014.

Yes, there are some effective tonics and supplements that can help seniors whose energy is flagging. Here are my suggestions:

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  • Cordyceps (Cordycepssinensis): This Chinese fungus is used as a tonic and restorative and can help overcome general weakness and fatigue and increase physical stamina, mental energy, sexual vigor and longevity. You can buy whole, dried cordyceps online and in health food stores and add them to soups and stews, or drink tea made from powdered cordyceps, but it is more convenient to get cordyceps extracts in liquid or capsule form. To treat general weakness, take cordyceps once or twice a day, following the dosage advice on the product. For health maintenance, take it once or twice a week.
  • Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus): Tinctures or capsules from the root of this Siberian plant work as a tonic to combat lethargy, fatigue and low stamina. Look for Eleuthero products standardized to .08 percent of eleutherosides. Most Eleuthero products vary in concentration and potency, so pay careful attention to the instructions on the label. The usual recommended dose is two capsules or one dropperful of tincture twice a day unless the instructions direct otherwise.
  • Rhodiola (R. rosea): also called arctic root or rose root, rhodiola grows at high altitudes in the Arctic areas of Europe and Asia. It is used in Russia as a tonic and traditional remedy for fatigue, poor attention span and decreased memory, and in the Scandinavian countries as a general strengthener and to increase the capacity for mental work. A comprehensive review published in the Fall 2002 issue of HerbalGram, the journal of the American Botanical Council, reported that over the years, numerous studies in humans, in animals and in cells have shown that rhodiola helps prevent fatigue, stress and the damaging effects of oxygen deprivation. The evidence reviewed suggests that rhodiola has an antioxidant effect and enhances immune system function.
  • Alpha lipoic acid and acetyl L carnitine: The combination of these micronutrients had been studied at the University of California, Berkeley, by biochemical researcher Bruce Ames, and shown to improve efficiency in the parts of cells known as mitochondria. Because mitochondria are responsible for energy production throughout the body the effects investigated included increased stamina and positive effects on memory. You can source the compounds individually or use products based on the Berkeley research, such as Juvenon.

Another approach to combating age-related weakness is strength training. After age 40, we lose one quarter to one-third of a pound of muscle each year (it is replaced by fat). This leads to a loss of strength of one to two percent per year. Fortunately, these changes can be slowed, and even reversed. Evidence from a number of studies has shown that even the frail elderly can benefit from strength training. The payoff can include stronger muscles, improved walking speed and an increase in overall strength. A 2011 German review of the scientific literature on strength training for seniors concluded with the recommendation that healthy seniors, age 60 and older, should train three or four times a week for the best results and that persons with poor performance at the outset can improve even with less frequent training.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

Frank Mayer et al, "The Intensity and Effects of Strength Training in the Elderly," Deutsches Aerzteblatt international, DOI: 10.3238/arztebl.2011.0359

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