An increased need for dietary cysteine in support of glutathione synthesis may underlie the increased risk for mortality associated with low protein intake in the elderly

Age (Dordr). 2015 Oct;37(5):96. doi: 10.1007/s11357-015-9823-8. Epub 2015 Sep 11.


Restricted dietary intakes of protein or essential amino acids tend to slow aging and boost lifespan in rodents, presumably because they downregulate IGF-I/Akt/mTORC1 signaling that acts as a pacesetter for aging and promotes cancer induction. A recent analysis of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) III cohort has revealed that relatively low protein intakes in mid-life (under 10 % of calories) are indeed associated with decreased subsequent risk for mortality. However, in those over 65 at baseline, such low protein intakes were associated with increased risk for mortality. This finding accords well with other epidemiology correlating relatively high protein intakes with lower risk for loss of lean mass and bone density in the elderly. Increased efficiency of protein translation reflecting increased leucine intake and consequent greater mTORC1 activity may play a role in this effect; however, at present there is little solid evidence that leucine supplementation provides important long-term benefits to the elderly. Aside from its potential pro-anabolic impact, higher dietary protein intakes may protect the elderly in another way-by providing increased amino acid substrate for synthesis of key protective factors. There is growing evidence, in both rodents and humans, that glutathione synthesis declines with increasing age, likely reflecting diminished function of Nrf2-dependent inductive mechanisms that boost expression of glutamate cysteine ligase (GCL), rate-limiting for glutathione synthesis. Intracellular glutathione blunts the negative impact of reactive oxygen species (ROS) on cell health and functions both by acting as an oxidant scavenger and by opposing the pro-inflammatory influence of hydrogen peroxide on cell signaling. Fortunately, since GCL's K m for cysteine is close to intracellular cysteine levels, increased intakes of cysteine-achieved from whole proteins or via supplementation with N-acetylcysteine (NAC)-can achieve a compensatory increase in glutathione synthesis, such that more youthful tissue levels of this compound can be restored. Supplementation with phase 2 inducers-such as lipoic acid-can likewise increase glutathione levels by promoting increased GCL expression. In aging humans and/or rodents, NAC supplementation has exerted favorable effects on vascular health, muscle strength, bone density, cell-mediated immunity, markers of systemic inflammation, preservation of cognitive function, progression of neurodegeneration, and the clinical course of influenza-effects which could be expected to lessen mortality and stave off frailty. Hence, greater cysteine availability may explain much of the favorable impact of higher protein intakes on mortality and frailty risk in the elderly, and joint supplementation with NAC and lipoic acid could be notably protective in the elderly, particularly in those who follow plant-based diets relatively low in protein. It is less clear whether the lower arginine intake associated with low-protein diets has an adverse impact on vascular health.

Keywords: Aging; Arginine; Cysteine; Glutathione; IGF-I; Leucine; N-acetylcysteine; Oxidative stress.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aging / metabolism*
  • Cysteine / pharmacology*
  • Diet, Protein-Restricted / adverse effects*
  • Dietary Supplements
  • Global Health
  • Glutathione / biosynthesis*
  • Glutathione / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Nutrition Surveys*
  • Risk Factors
  • Survival Rate / trends


  • Glutathione
  • Cysteine