Aging, interrupted: How COVID-19 influenced consumers’ approach to healthy aging
We all know that COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate: Every age, gender, race, and ethnicity has suffered its predations mightily.
But the disease inarguably takes a higher toll on the elderly.
A Kaiser Family Foundation analysis1 found in July 2020 that 80% of U.S. COVID deaths to date were in patients aged 65 and older, with as many as 94% of Idaho’s deaths occurring in that age range. In light of such numbers, the sunny notion of “healthy aging” that’s gained traction of late—a notion in which seniors don’t just live longer, but better—seems a bygone luxury.
Once we emerge from the pandemic, however, we may be ready to pursue healthful aging with a wiser, more comprehensive perspective as to what it actually means—and what it takes to achieve it.
As Will Cowling, marketing manager at market researcher FMCG Gurus (St. Albans, UK), predicts, “Consumers will expect brands to help facilitate this long-term approach to health maintenance. That means it’s crucial that any products geared to this market be compromise-free in taste, cost, and convenience.” And in effectiveness.
The bumper sticker warned us that “getting old isn’t for sissies.” But if that statement held true during the best of times—well, the past year hasn't been the best of times.
“COVID-19 posed a risk to every senior,” observes Jon Copeland, research strategist at brand strategy firm MarketPlace (St. Louis, MO). “Not only did they face a risk of infection; isolation, boredom, and ennui also took their mental tolls.”
The breadth of those effects, FMCG’s Cowling believes, “has fundamentally changed consumers’ attitudes toward health and wellness, including during old age. They’re concerned about how long the threat will linger while also wondering whether this was a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic or if globalization will make such viruses more common. As such, they’re questioning aspects of their lives that they’d taken for granted, while changing their health goals from being aspirational to driven by concern about disease and illness.”
Far from spelling the death of “healthy aging,” though, this shift might actually kick the trend into higher gear if it leads forward-thinking consumers to “take an even more proactive and long-term approach to health than ever before,” Cowling says.
Adding Life to Later Years
When you get down to it, that’s what healthy aging is all about.
“Healthy aging isn’t so much about adding years to one’s life as it’s about adding life to one’s years,” Copeland explains. “It involves protecting seniors’ bodies and preserving their ability to do the things they want to do—even later in life. That’s because today’s seniors aren’t content to sit quietly at home. They want to be active and social.”
Moreover, the healthy-aging approach appeals to consumers well before they rank among the “aged.” It’s an all-ages strategy for attaining longevity, and as with building a retirement nest egg, the earlier one starts, the more the investment pays off down the road.
That’s certainly Cowling’s conclusion. “Healthy aging involves consumers of all ages stepping back, reevaluating their diets and lifestyles, and questioning if those factors increase their risk of having health problems later in life,” he says. “It’s the 25- to 34-year-old questioning how their current eating and drinking habits might increase the future risk of cancer, for example.”
Immunity on the Mind
For now, however, any notion of healthy aging—whether among the aged or those just planning on getting there someday—first has to contend with surviving the coronavirus. And that’s directed consumers’ attention squarely at immunity.
“Interest in immunity definitely spiked across the board during the pandemic,” MarketPlace’s Copeland says, “and because seniors were at high risk for serious illness from COVID-19, this took on special urgency. If healthy aging is about protecting and preserving the body for better quality of life over time, then the pandemic has brought into sharp focus immunity’s role in that process.”
Cowling agrees. Yet again, he widens the curtain to note that younger consumers take immunity seriously, too.
“While it’s true that seniors have been more adversely exposed to COVID-19’s devastating impact, it’s important to recognize that fears about vulnerability to the virus aren’t restricted to this demographic,” he notes. “Consumers of all ages are conscious about how susceptible their immune systems are to the serious health problems arising from this virus, and as a result they’re looking to improve their habits to recognize the immediate and long-term benefits.”
Nutrition the First Step
Among the first habits they aim to improve: what and how they eat.
According to Copeland, a MarketPlace study2 conducted between March and June of 2020 “found seniors turning to diet and nutrition as a way to take charge of their situation.” And for good reason: “Meals and supplementation can be powerful ways to boost immunity and mental well-being during these times,” he notes.
Yet nutritional needs “are unique to each person’s health context,” Copeland continues, “and this is especially true for seniors.” All of which, he believes, gives supplementation an edge. “Supplementation offers options for tailoring nutrition to meet those needs that go unmet through diet,” he argues.
And it’s not all about immunity, either. “In our survey of last summer, we found older consumers turning to supplements to help with both short-term needs, like boosting energy and alertness for the day, and with long-term goals like supporting bone and joint health, mobility, and other conditions that relate directly to quality of life.”
The same survey found consumers of all ages “actively tending to digestive health for long-term wellness,” he adds, noting “a ton of interest in applications with fermented cultures, like kombucha, kefir, and yogurt.” Probiotics are benefitting from the boom, too, and from mounting evidence for and insights about the microbiome’s influence on mental as well as physical health, he says.
And that almost takes us back to what healthy aging looked like as 2020 began—but with a twist. “The pandemic’s taught us so much about how adaptive our bodies are,” Copeland reflects. “In the face of a dire situation with no certain end, we’ve became acutely aware of our physical response to isolation and extreme stress. Personal wellness is both a weapon and a shield against those negative effects. These are lessons that will serve us well as we age.”