Development of such products could boost the bottom line of manufacturers, but also increase the longevity of what has been the most educated and affluent generation to date. Antioxidants, calcium, vitamin D and zinc for instance, can slow the rate of age-related disease and increase the number of healthy years in a person's life, the speakers said in a symposium on healthy aging. "We need to take that information and apply it," Jeffrey Blumberg, nutrition scientist at Tufts University, told IFT attendees. "We have to be willing to create new food products that older people can consumer on a regular basis."
While Blumberg's research shows that antioxidants, zinc and copper can delay AMD (age-related macular degeneration), he also estimates that - in the right doses - this type of fortification or supplementation could prevent 300,000 cases of blindness in a five-year period. However, there are numerous factors that set the stage for an aging person's nutritional health, according to the speakers.
These include socio-economic influences - such as a person's economic status, their psychological health, or the impact of changes in their environment as they age - and also physiological factors - such as altered nutrient metabolism, a reduced ability to absorb nutrients, or the interaction of nutrients with pharmaceutical drugs. "As we grow older, the ph of our gut goes up and there can be dramatic effects on bioavailability," said Bloomberg.
He used the example of the interaction of vitamin D and statin drugs, and called for increasing the recommended daily allowances for the vitamin in order to help combat arthritis, multiple sclerosis, gastrointestinal problems and immune response. But on the other side of the regulatory coin is the need to address baby boomers directly through marketing.
"We need to find food products that will directly meet their needs and that they will find appealing," said Bloomberg. The term baby boomers refers to the generation born roughly between the years 1946 and 1964.
Aging boomers are generally more aware of the relationship between food and beverage and how they feel physically - according to Shelley Balanko, a researcher with the Hartman Group in Washington state - and they want feelings of vitality rather than foods that make them feel sluggish. They also want to feel independent and be in charge of their own health. "Support the process of reinvention," Balanko recommended to food manufacturers. "Boomers are looking for support in that."
The speakers also highlighted the potential positive impact on healthcare systems if disease were delayed significantly in the aging process. Baby boomers are not immune to the obesity epidemic in the US, for instance, and marketers for their products will also have to take this health risk into consideration. But since this generation is characterized by a desire to take control of their own health, they are also ready for such goods.
"Healthy weight is possible at any age," said Molly Gee, project leader of the NIH Look Ahead clinical trial. "Active boomers are looking for ways they can manage their weight through diet." Gee, faculty member at Baylor College of Medicine, is conducting the clinical trial on weight loss and diabetes across 16 sites in the US. So far the trial has seen favorable results, and she attributes this to the program's use of intensive lifestyle intervention, which includes constant reinforcement and support for participants, as well as realistic goals.
This qualitative aspect to nutrition is what will make all the difference in determining positive changes in healthy lifespan, according to Gee. "I believe the US is on the brink of a longevity revolution."