What, precisely, does it mean to age healthily? And how can we marshal public health and market resources to make it happen?
When the 70-plus delegates, researchers, and supplement-industry professionals who attended 2017’s CRN-International (CRN-I) Scientific Symposium boarded their planes home from Berlin, they did so having plumbed the cultural, psychosocial, physical, and environmental facets of a public-health concept that’s only beginning to take shape: healthy aging.
And they plumbed those facets for good reason: We’re all getting older. And we’d all be better off doing so more healthily. Because, as James C. Griffiths, PhD, vice president, scientific and international affairs, CRN-I (Washington, DC), puts it, “Understanding aging is critical to ameliorating its impact on both individuals and society.”
But what, precisely, it means to age healthily-and how we can marshal public health and market resources to make it happen-remains a moving target. “Though definitions of healthy aging continue to evolve,” Griffiths concedes, “the surface has barely been scratched.”
The scientific community continues scratching. In the process, they’re learning more about how sound nutrition may add not just years to our lives, but life to our years. And the more they learn, the greater the role the dietary supplement industry stands to play.
Getting a handle on nutrition and healthy aging is hardly an academic exercise. It has real implications for the societal bottom line. As Griffiths points out, “Healthcare costs are so astronomical that anything that can address them through proper nutrition and other lifestyle factors will make a dent somewhere down the road.”
Consider that the number of Americans over age 65 is set to double from about 50 million today to nearly 100 million by 2060, according to the Population Reference Bureau.1 And if current trends hold, those seniors will keep Medicare plenty busy (assuming it’s still around).
As recently as 2016, the United States spent fully $3.4 trillion on healthcare, per a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services study; by 2025, it predicts those expenditures to hit $5.5 trillion, a growth rate of 5.6% per year driven by inflation in the cost of medical products and services directed at an aging population.2
A Concept in the Making
But quantifiable healthcare expenses aren’t the only costs of aging. There’s also the toll it can exact on quality of life when our out years are fraught with debility, pain, isolation, and depression.
And this is where healthy aging comes in.
Again, a firm definition of the concept has yet to congeal, perhaps because healthy aging comprises a constellation of considerations. As the authors of a report released following the 2017 CRN-I symposium write, “Irrespective of the term or terms used, healthy ageing has evolved to include the intersection between avoiding and managing disease and disability, optimizing cognitive and physical function, and engagement with life throughout the ageing years.”3
Griffiths, a coauthor of that study, points to the World Health Organization’s definition of healthy aging-“the process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables wellbeing into older age”-as a workable model moving forward. Importantly, it recognizes two key pieces to the healthy-aging equation, he says: “One is ability-what can we do?-and the other is what’s inside us intrinsically that lets us do what we want to do.” By drilling into each-as Griffiths and his coauthors do-we may one day better understand both.
Extending the Healthspan
In the end, healthy aging deemphasizes morbidity and disease in favor of “the intrinsic capacity of the individual, the environments they inhabit, and the interaction between them,” the study’s authors write. And that has everyone thinking about extending potential “healthspan” rather than mere lifespan.
For while it’s a triumph that humans are living longer than ever, the number of years we live gives “no indication of how we live the last portion of that longer lifespan,” Griffiths says. By contrast, healthspan-the period of life lived in good health, free of chronic diseases and disability-does. “So a lot of our effort has gone to looking at healthspan and asking if we have healthy years as long as possible instead of numerical years as long as possible.”
Far from meeting bare minima for survival, healthspan aims at optimization. And multiple factors determine it, from education and social connections to lifestyle, diet, and genetics. Further, Griffith notes, healthspan is a term of art, not of science.
Nevertheless, he continues, “It addresses how seniors are redefining what healthy aging means. All of us are looking for longer lives. But more importantly, we all want healthier lives.”
Measure by Measure
One impediment to achieving healthier lives as we age is the fact that accurate ways of measuring healthspan are hard to come by.
Unlike with disease states-where beta-amyloid, C-reactive protein, or homocysteine levels signal trouble-precious few biomarkers or short-term effects tell us how well we’re aging. Instead, we often end up waiting until after aging’s happened-perhaps poorly-to get the test results that tell us what went wrong.
“And that’s a critical point,” Griffiths insists. “We need a scientific undertaking to ascertain what we can measure when we’re 20, 30, and so-on to show that we’re on the right course,” he says. The research community is making a “concerted effort” to identify such early-warning biomarkers; but until they do, we’re feeling our way though.
Filling the Gaps
Which offers little guidance to nutrition companies hoping to contribute to a collectively longer healthspan for today’s seniors and for generations to come. In the words of the CRN-I conference report, adequate nutrition may be fundamental to good health, but “it remains unclear what impact various dietary interventions may have on prolonging good quality of life.”
For his part, Griffiths believes “there is a role for supplements,” along with basic hygiene practices like maintaining a healthy diet, exercising, and getting a full night’s sleep. “Supplements do fit into the equation because no matter how hard we try to focus on the best nutrition, we still have those gaps to fill,” he concedes.
In fact, Griffiths is a “big believer” in bioactives for healthy aging, “whether they’re botanical or omega-3s,” and, personally, supplements with omega-3s, lutein, magnesium, and more-on top of what he considers good nutrition-“because I’m trying to make up for what I didn’t do when I was younger and should have. And who knows about genetic effects. So I try to address that through products that are on the market with proven scientific benefits.”
And those products are out there. But he can’t stress enough that the work of aging healthily begins when we’re still young. “It’s always hard when you’re talking about prevention to recognize that it should have started decades earlier,” he says. “That’s hard messaging to accomplish.”
A more palatable message may be that aging is not a disease state. In a perfect world, all aging would be healthy.
But we’re not there. And we won’t be for a while. As Griffiths says, “We have no preconceptions that this is likely to happen in the next couple years. Public health policy moves only incrementally and only after there’s sufficient science and push from the scientific and nutritional communities to demonstrate these changes. We’re probably talking about a decade or more of continued research and conferences and publications along these lines.”
If a longer healthspan results, it will be worth the wait.
Increasing our collective healthspan may be outside our grasp for now, but read on to learn how nutrition brands can still make better nutrition easier for today’s seniors to achieve.
Know Your Audience
A key step in helping seniors age as vitally as they can involves understanding who they are. Or, as Andrew Stablein, research analyst, Euromonitor International (Chicago), says, “When we think about where there’s the greatest opportunity for growth in dietary supplements positioned for seniors, we have to think in terms of need: What concerns do seniors have about their health? What gaps in their diets are they looking to fill? And in what form do seniors prefer to take their supplements?”
Ergo, “Specifically targeting the chronic conditions that seniors face,” he says, is the way to go.
Griffiths agrees, noting that joint and bone health are super-critical to seniors. “And cognition and heart health are areas that if seniors don’t worry about they should,” he adds.
Don’t forget healthy vision and eyes, which-along with joint and muscle pain-ranked of highest concern for seniors in Euromonitor’s 2019 Health and Nutrition survey, Stablein says.
It’s up to product developers, Griffiths says, “to stay up with the most current science and do their homework as to the products that have shown these benefits. The science is there. The developer has to be aware of it and can’t just put ‘senior’ on a product and think that’s all it takes.”
Consider the Source
One reason brands can’t just bill a product as “for seniors” and expect it to fly is that seniors are smart. This ain’t their first rodeo.
“Seniors are well-read,” Griffiths notes. “Most have more time and interest to look into their health than do many younger people, and they’re becoming more cognizant of what’s out there and what they should be purchasing.”
Credit goes to seniors’ curiosity, as well as to increased access to information about their health and nutrition needs.
But as Stablein notes, with so much information out there, brands could improve and refine the information they provide about their supplements.
According to Euromonitor’s 2019 survey, 60-plus consumers’ source for information about taking vitamins and supplements is a doctor or medical professional, Stablein says. “So whether this materializes as reputable medical sources expanding their online information through new formats-videos, social media, et cetera,” he says, “there will always exist an opportunity to properly educate U.S. consumers on supplement use.”
Eye and vision health is a priority for seniors for good reason: Older adults represent the bulk of the visually impaired population in the United States, according to the National Eye Institute.
So with all that dietary supplement information now available for seniors to read, brands should try to make it easier for them to do so on package labels and elsewhere.
Surprisingly, though, many aren’t. According to a 2015 online poll that Packaging Digest conducted with industry professionals, although 39% of those surveyed claimed always or usually to consider seniors’ needs when designing packaging, 24% sometimes do, 28% seldom or never do, and 9% just don’t know.4
What could they do better? Use legible print, for one thing, which grows more difficult the more information brands need to convey. (And don’t even get us started on fitting it all onto tiny packages.) And while QR codes have revolutionized how we access information about products and more, they’re not always as popular with older consumers are they are with Millennials and digital natives.
4. Packaging Digest website. “Are seniors top of mind when you design your packages?” Published October 27, 2015. Accessed at: http://www.packagingdigest.com/packaging-design/are-seniors-top-of-mind-when-you-design-your-packages1510
Take It Easily
As Stablein mentioned earlier, the format in which seniors prefer to take their supplements should be a top priority for brands designing for them. And on that count, he considers a “bright spot” in the senior-friendly market “the shift toward addressing ‘pill fatigue.’”
The gummy platform, in particular, has made supplement compliance easier for seniors to stomach he says. It’s not hard to see why: they’re tasty, easy to chew, and a lot more fun than another tablet or softgel. And the flavorings, strategically chosen, can mask the chalky, bitter, or metallic tastes that dog too many supplements.
No wonder The New York Times reported that sales of gummy supplements have shot up more than 25% since 2015, according to the AARP.5
5. Sagon S. “Forget the kids; it’s adults taking gummy vitamins.” AARP website. Published March 3, 2017. Accessed at: https://www.aarp.org/health/drugs-supplements/info-2017/gummy-vitamins-for-adults-fd.html