What promise does personalized nutrition hold for healthier aging?


How personalized nutrition is helping seniors chart a course for healthy aging.

Photo © AdobeStock.com/Parradee

Photo © AdobeStock.com/Parradee

Legend has it that silver-screen icon Bette Davis coined the now meme-worthy quip, “Getting old ain’t for sissies.” And if the actress had stuck around long enough to be dropping bon mots today, she might have included this addendum: “Getting old ain’t what it used to be, either.”

Indeed, with “healthspans” replacing lifespans as the key metric of successful seniority, it’s become clear that “popular perceptions of aging have definitely shifted in recent decades,” says Jaime Crespo, CEO, Persona Nutrition, a Nestlé Health Science company.

It’s only fitting, then, that perceptions about how best to build nutritional supplements for older consumers have shifted as well. And as AI and analytical technologies have learned how better to navigate the vast streams of data trailing our every move, brands have begun using the resulting data to undergird nutritional regimens personalized to individual consumers—including individual seniors, whose lifetime streams of data are wider than most.

All of which is to the good in Crespo’s eyes. “As we age,” he says, “our bodies will inevitably undergo physical changes that we can’t stop. But that doesn’t mean we have to admit defeat. Personalized nutrition is a powerful tool for optimizing healthy aging, and it’s a very real, rapidly growing part of the vitamins, minerals, herbals, and supplements market (VMHS).”

Adjusting Expectations

Bette Davis was a bombshell back in the day, but even she might be intimidated by the youthful standards that today’s seniors may feel compelled to meet.

“Under the banner of healthy living,” Crespo explains, “both celebrity culture and social media alike can hold up an unrealistic ideal: smooth skin, perfect joints, retirees running like athletes.” We’re looking at you, Tom Cruise. “In reality, though, we need to level-set expectations and limit comparisons between age groups. The healthiest approach to aging well is a more realistic but proactive mindset.”

And that’s where personalized nutrition, comes in. Why? Because, says Crespo, it’s “built around this simple fact: We are all unique. And since we all have unique bodies, diets, and lifestyles, our aging journeys are unique as well.”

Reactive Measures

Personalized nutrition helps seniors chart a course on those journeys by way of customized supplement protocols, blends, or packs tailored to the individual.

And it’s about time it does, says Nathan Price, PhD, chief scientific officer, Thorne Health. “The previous century’s ‘find-it-and-fix-it’ healthcare model is outdated,” he declares. “Almost all older consumers have been treated their whole lives with reactive measures after symptoms arise, rather than addressing root causes and focusing on enhancing health and wellness.”

That leads him to conclude that the “proactive and preventive approach” inherent to personalized nutrition offers a “much better solution to today’s challenges” while also preventing “a lot of time and resources from being wasted because it drills right down to the uniquely individual level,” he says.

One and All

That Price draws parallels between one-size-fits-all supplementation and our “find-it-and-fix-it” healthcare system is no coincidence: Both practices represent the best their era’s technology and knowledge could muster, but both could now be done better.

Innovative supplement brands are already on the job with personalized-nutrition products; meanwhile, in the healthcare space, scientists with the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) All of Us research program are taking a precision approach to improving how we “do” medicine, too.

As Holly Nicastro, PhD, MPH, program director in the NIH Office of Nutrition Research and coordinator of the Nutrition for Precision Health study, which is powered by All of Us, explains, “The All of Us research program is a historic effort to partner with at least one million or more people who reflect the diversity of the United States to build one of the most diverse biomedical data resources of its kind.”

The idea is that researchers could then use that dataset “to help advance precision medicine—an approach to disease treatment and prevention that seeks to maximize effectiveness by taking into account individual variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle factors that influence health,” she continues.

That sounds a lot like personalized nutrition, and as coordinator of the Nutrition for Precision Health study, Nicastro is obviously bullish on both approaches. In fact, she believes that precision nutrition at its best has the potential to yield “individualized and actionable dietary recommendations that help people decide how—and when, and what, and why—to eat to optimize their health or quality of life.”

We currently know that age, sex, menopausal status, physical activity, disease state, and baseline nutrition all factor into those recommendations, Nicastro says, and we continue to tease out the roles that genetics and the microbiome play. But in the future, she continues, “We suspect there will be even more factors out there that haven’t been discovered yet.”

We don’t have to wait until they are to get started, though. “Registered dieticians already tailor their advice to an individual’s characteristics, health status, food preferences, and health goals,” Nicastro says. “But as the evidence base supporting precision nutrition grows, we hope to incorporate even more of these factors into how precision nutrition is used.”

Honest Assessment

As of now, supplement brands in the space gauge their consumers’ nutritional and wellness needs using a battery of assessments ranging from microbiome analysis via stool sample to blood and saliva tests, questionnaires, and the sharing of wearable-tech data.

Such sharing is fundamental to personalized nutrition’s intent, Crespo notes, because “to truly understand older adults, brands need to look beyond market studies and consumer trends to develop insights at the individual level.”

So Persona’s assessments pose a series of questions about diet, lifestyle, wellness goals—even medications—to users, running the response data through the company’s proprietary nutrition algorithm to design supplement packs that meet users’ needs.

“Persona then engages with the customer throughout their journey to ensure their supplement plan evolves with them,” Crespo continues. The company’s app and in-house nutritionists even work one-on-one with users to answer questions and offer nutrition tips that fit evolving needs. “It’s a powerful strategy that resonates with consumers at any age,” Crespo believes.

Thorne also offers a range of targeted assessments, including one that, by zeroing in on biological age, should appeal to aging consumers. By crunching their data, the company’s AI and machine-learning capabilities deliver what Price calls an “incredibly accurate” reading of the individual’s health status to inform personalized product recommendations.

The biological-age test does require a lab visit for a blood draw, Price notes, but the payoff is a “detailed assessment of the body’s internal age at the cellular level” and an “age score aimed at providing insights so individuals can make changes that will improve their overall health and wellness.”

Finding Allies

Again, the similarity to healthcare as envisioned by the NIH’s All of Us program is striking, suggesting a natural alliance between personalized nutrition and precision medicine.

Nicastro certainly thinks both approaches “go hand-in-hand,” she says, and by embedding the Nutrition for Precision Health study within the All of Us research program, “NIH is building a research resource that will allow investigators to study precision nutrition and precision medicine in a large, diverse, longitudinal cohort.”

The cohort’s broad age range as well as the program’s long time horizon will grant researchers the ability to “explore how precision medicine and precision nutrition could work together to support healthy aging,” Nicastro says. And why not? “The two can and should work together,” she declares. “To optimize health, nutrition should be part of a patient’s treatment plan, and that patient’s health history should be part of dietary recommendations.”

Such a partnership should win over savvy seniors, whose “understanding of their personal nutrition has become much more sophisticated in recent years,” Crespo argues. In the face of this reality, Crespo believes brands must “ground their formulations in science and constantly demonstrate that commitment to their audience—and to this end, many major players in the space integrate clinicians and other health professionals into the fabric of their organizations.”

Facing the Future

But what brands shouldn’t do, Crespo continues, is handhold their older consumers through the digital infrastructure that personalized nutrition entails.

“Someone who’s 65 today was only in their 30s when the internet entered their lives,” he points out. “They likely got a smartphone in their 40s, and they may have been on social media for almost 20 years. It’s a misconception that older adults muddle through the digital world. They live their lives in that world like everyone else.”

The digital divide is narrowing between generations, he insists, and brands that ignore the closing of that gap “do so at their peril,” Crespo concludes. “Older adults don’t need to catch up to our industry; our industry needs to catch up to them.”

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