Nobody wants to be told they are getting older. Age is relative and as the years pass, 40 becomes the new 30, 50 the new 40, 60 the new 50 and so on. As life expectancies increase, many businesses and public health agencies around the world are going to be faced with the issue of how to address the needs of this population. The issue is not local, either, and represents an opportunity for national as well as multinational corporations.

A series of articles on health and aging published in the Nov. 6 issue of The Lancet warns that unless public and private groups find effective strategies to address the problems faced by an aging global population, the burden of chronic disease will affect the quality of life of older people. As people across the world live longer, soaring levels of chronic illness and diminished quality of life are poised to become a global public health challenge. Nutrition will play a significant role in addressing the issue.

Worldwide, life expectancy of older people continues to rise. By 2020, for the first time in history, the number of people aged 60 years and older will outnumber children younger than 5 years, according to the World Health Organization. By
2050, the world’s population aged 60 years and older is expected to total 2 billion, up from 841 million today. Eighty per cent of the older people will be living in low-income and middle-income countries.

The increase in longevity, especially in high-income countries, largely has been due to the decline in deaths from cardiovascular disease, mainly because of cost-effective strategies to reduce tobacco use and high blood pressure, and improved coverage and effectiveness of health interventions.

Nearly a quarter of the overall global burden of death and illness is in people aged over 60, and much of the burden is attributable to long-term illness caused by such diseases as cancer, chronic respiratory diseases, heart disease, musculoskeletal diseases and other disorders.

The long-term burden of illness and diminished well-being affects the individuals, their families, health systems and economies, and is forecast to worsen. For example, the W.H.O. estimates indicate the number of people with dementia is expected to rise from 44 million now to 135 million by 2050, according to The Lancet.

“Deep and fundamental reforms of health and social caresystems will be required,” said John Beard, director of the Department of Ageing and Life Course at the W.H.O., and co-leader of The Lancet series. “But we must be careful that these reforms do not reinforce the inequities that drive much of the poor health and functional limitation we see in older age.”

Strategies must go beyond health sector

The responsibility for improving quality of life for the world’s aging population goes far beyond the public health sector. Strategies are needed that better prevent and manage chronic conditions by extending affordable health care to all older adults and take into consideration the physical and social environment.

Examples illustrated in The Lancet’s series of articles include changing policies to encourage older adults to remain part of the workforce for longer, emphasizing low-cost disease prevention and early detection rather than treatment, making better use of technology, and training health care staff in the management of multiple chronic conditions.

Two areas that all ages, but especially baby boomers and “matures,” cite as the most important wellness aspirations are weight management and heart health, according to The Nielsen Co., New York. The research firm defines both segments as “health-aware” populations that recognize achieving the goals requires taking personal responsibility for managing health through proper nutrition.

“This finding suggests that advertising and promotional campaigns emphasizing the personal responsibility angle of health and wellness could be highly effective with these groups, especially as satisfaction with America’s health care system continues to wane,” Nielsen said. “We want to be healthier, to eat better, to exercise. We know what we need to do to lead healthier lives, yet our busy lifestyles get in the way.

“We are looking for solutions, and manufacturers and retailers face a real opportunity to help bridge the gap. By understanding the need of consumers and the obstacles getting in the way of their healthy aspirations, the industry can solve for consumers’ needs and have a positive effect on their health and wellness.”

The beverage sector moves forward

While the beverage industry’s focus may appear to be on developing the next wave of energy beverages that appeal to younger consumers, the market research firm Canadean, London, said there are opportunities with older consumers.

“It is all about the different approaches being taken by manufacturers,” said Erica Shaw, a beverage analyst at Canadean. “On the one hand, across Western markets in particular, manufacturers are launching more products with active ingredients to address health and vitality issues, but similarly, companies are looking into the more practical aspects of growing older, such as being able to lift and carry the products without a difficulty and designing more convenient packaging.”

Beverage companies are developing “anti-aging” beverages that contain superfruits, botanical ingredients, vitamins and minerals, and that appeal to the older consumer. One example is a Swiss drink called CellaNova. The product is a slightly carbonated mineral water, with pomegranate and cranberry juice and OM24, which is a natural ingredient made from whole green tea leaves with antioxidant properties and claims to neutralize free radicals, which cause the aging process of cells.

A range of beverages from another beverage company, Vitamin Well, offers many options to address specific health issues, and includes vitamin B12, which is particularly recommended for older consumers to complement their diet. Other products in the line include varieties focused on energy, immune health and improved concentration.

The ease of carrying and pouring drinks also is being considered with older consumers in mind. In Portugal, for example, Nestle’ Waters Direct is promoting its compact MySpring water cooler especially to older consumers, who may not want to carry heavy packaged water all the way home.

To assist senior consumers in their everyday lives, companies also are developing convenient packaging solutions. Tetra Pak, for example, offers HeliCap, a one-step screw cap designed to provide a good grip and requires only low force to open.

Protein’s popularity is growing

Much work has been done around the delivery of specific nutrients of importance to older consumers. Calcium, for example, comes to mind as being important for the maintenance of bone health. Fiber and digestive health is another example. Michelle Braun, senior researcher, DuPont Nutrition & Health, said one area of focus for aging consumers is protein consumption.

“As we age, our bodies require more high-quality protein to maintain or increase muscle mass and function,” she said. “Research suggests that 25 to 30 grams of high quality protein at each meal promotes optimal muscle protein synthesis, and ensures adequate intake of the essential amino acid leucine — which plays a critical role in building muscle.

“Soy protein is a source of all the essential amino acids in the proper amounts to meet the needs of boomers. It is well-digested and has a Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score of 1.0, making it a complete, high quality protein. What makes soy unique is that it is the only widely available plant protein that is considered a high quality protein.”

From an application perspective, the consumer and the occasion use will help define the recommended grams of protein for each.

“For instance, if weight management is top of mind, an application that serves as a protein meal replacement is appropriate and will include at least 10 grams of protein per serving, 5 grams of fiber and 25% of the Daily Value of a broad array of vitamins and minerals,” said David Sabbagh, senior group manager of applications innovation for DuPont Nutrition & Health. “For active consumers in need of a protein supplement, a range of 25 grams or more of protein per serving is more appropriate, and may include only selective fortification of other vitamins and minerals. With a variety of proteins to choose from, selecting the best protein for each application is key.”

Globally, food and beverage manufacturers always will be challenged by providing a functional benefit at a cost that is affordable.

“Finding the right balance between taste, function and cost/value is a top critical success factor with new product launches,” Ms. Braun said. “Protein can be a higher cost than other ingredients in a formulation, but it also has well-established and well-accepted health benefits.

“The growth rates of ‘healthy/functional’ products are outpacing the growth rates of the comparable standard products. That is evident in the beverage market where carbonated soft drinks have fairly flat growth while the protein/fiber enhanced products are still growing. Consumers are willing to pay for the added value they are receiving.”