COVID-19 has placed the importance of good health in old age firmly into the spotlight, but has it made people any more savvy about investing in their future wellbeing, questions Jane Wolfe
This year marks the start of the United Nations Decade of Healthy Ageing (2021-2030), by the end of which, there will be 34% more people aged 60-plus, up from one billion in 2019 to 1.4 billion. And bearing in mind that in 2020, for the first time in history, people aged 60 years or over outnumbered children under five, it’s never been more vital for people to take action for a healthful future.
The health of older citizens has been brought sharply into focus with the pandemic: a report from the Office for National Statistics says pensioners are 34 times more likely to die of COVID than those of working age. “Age is the single biggest risk factor for death from COVID-19,” says GP, Dr Nisa Aslam from the Health & Food Supplements Information Service (HSIS). “More than four out of five people who have died from COVID-19 have been 70 years and over.” Stressing the importance of older people looking after their immune function, she adds: “Most nutrients play an essential part in immune function, including vitamins A, C, D, E, iron, iodine, zinc, selenium and copper, but data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) shows shortfalls of many nutrients across the age groups.”
COVID: shining a spotlight
Although the necessity of maintaining good health in older age groups has been accentuated by COVID, it has also affected many seniors’ motivation to make nutritious meals. “Older people who are suffering through isolation … are likely to become depressed and demotivated to prepare or obtain healthy meals,” says Aslam, adding that NDNS figures indicate 59% of people 65-plus are low in selenium with 7% low in iodine, 22% of men over 75 lack magnesium, and 20% of women over 65 are low in potassium. “Dietary guidance from Government could be changed to reflect the reality of poor diets. More emphasis needs to be put on eating healthily for older people,” she says. “Government would be wise to recommend a multivitamin and multimineral supplement for this age group and to ensure all understand the need to take the recommended dose of 10µg vitamin D daily as this is almost impossible to obtain from the diet.”
The pandemic has certainly highlighted the fact that most people don’t get enough vitamin D, says Adam Cleevely, CEO of FutureYou Cambridge, which recently added the Prime Fifty line to its offer. “Without this key vitamin, along with vitamins like K2, it can lead to older women, in particular, experiencing osteoporotic fractures. As you get older you are also more likely to experience deficiencies in vitamin B, iron and magnesium. This can affect how easily you absorb nutrients from food as well as how energetic you feel,” he says, adding that FutureYou’s single-ingredient supplements are formulated to be highly absorbable.
“Age is the single biggest risk factor for death from COVID-19. More than four out of five people who have died from COVID-19 have been 70 years and over”
Cleevely believes everyone has become more sensitive about their personal health, but because of the more serious impact COVID’s had on the older generation, they are ‘even more keen to take positive action to support their health and wellbeing’. “I think the pandemic will have a lasting impact on how people care for themselves … I do believe the UK population is beginning to recognize the role supplements and nutrition can play in maintaining their general health and wellbeing.”
However, he says Government should allow companies to talk more openly about supplements, their benefits and the scientific research behind them, adding: “I also think vitamin D should be provided as a free product for the over-60s permanently, as well as selected ethnic groups that have been shown to be low in this essential vitamin.”
Key concerns, key nutrients
Aslam says that older patients are most worried about brain health, conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s, with suggested nutrients including long chain omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins, which she also recommends for cardiovascular health – another major concern – along with magnesium and potassium, which is important to balance sodium intake and maintain healthy blood pressure, thus also reducing stroke risk. For maintaining healthy bones she lists calcium, vitamin D, magnesium, zinc and copper.
“Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients such as curcumin from turmeric are key elements for healthy ageing, not only for our skin and brains but chronic low-grade inflammation which is also at the basis of many age-related diseases, like arthritis, diabetes and heart problems,” says Cleevely. “As we age, nutrients that are important to keep our cell energy metabolism, like CoQ10, also become more relevant, as do nutrients that support a healthy heart, such as lycopene, selenium or vitamin K2, as heart issues are still one of the major burdens of our society. And we shouldn’t forget many of the essential micronutrients that are less well absorbed or produced as we age, such as vitamin D or vitamin B12.”
He puts forward Prime Fifty’s Super Greens+ as a good example of a maintenance supplement for older people as it provides a wide range of essential nutrients in an effervescent drink format.
Andrew Thomas, founder of BetterYou says the decline in nutrient absorption is primarily a result of reduced digestive function. “The main cause being the decline in hydrochloric acid production within the stomach, needed to break food down for absorption. Of all the nutrients affected by this, vitamin B12 would be top of the list. Not only is it the largest of all vitamin molecules, it also requires the presence of an enzyme called intrinsic factor to enable absorption, which also declines with age.”
He adds: “For women specifically, the reduction of oestrogen due to the menopause can impact the body’s retention of magnesium, important for flexibility, hormonal balance, cognitive function and energy.
“Of course, lifestyle has an impact on health and it has become undeniable that our increasingly internal existence has led to a decline in vitamin D and the immune and skeletal issues that it contributes to.
But with pill fatigue being a particularly common issue in elderly people, BetterYou’s chosen delivery systems include intra-oral formulations, which offer added benefits: “Oral sprays deliver actives into the bloodstream via the mucosal membrane within the mouth so bypassing the digestive system … I feel that the reign of the tablet as the most effective way of nutritional elevation within the bloodstream is well and truly over.”
Building a solid foundation of good health is crucial for a robust old age, but are younger people investing in their future wellbeing? Aslam says not: “Work and family commitments, the sheer business of everyday life, leisure priorities, lack of understanding that nutrition is important conspire to put optimum health down the list of priorities.”
And research commissioned by Healthspan accords with this: one in ten Brits don’t take their health seriously until they hit 40; over a quarter admit to neglecting their health until they hit 51; and 42% only began paying attention to their health ‘when they didn’t feel as energetic as they used to’. On a more positive note, 63% believed that ‘it’s never too late to start looking after themselves and taking their health seriously’, while 62% said COVID had provided motivation to improve their health.
“By taking care of yourself when you’re younger, you’re kicking the ageing process down the road. The feedback from our older customers is often that they wished they’d started sooner”
“Better self-care throughout life and into old age is essential as much illness is preventable,” says Aslam. “Poor nutrient intake can impact on health both now and in the future. Preventive measures are very important throughout life and it is never too late to improve micronutrient intake. Common deficiencies include vitamins A, D, B2, folate, selenium, iodine, iron, potassium. These deficiencies are due to poor diet. In the UK we have a reliance on ultra-processed food which can be lacking in nutrients.”
“The body can start ageing from 35 or 40 if you’re not looking after it properly,” Cleevely cautions. “By taking care of yourself when you’re younger, you’re kicking the ageing process down the road. The feedback from our older customers is often that they wished they’d started sooner.”
“Without a doubt, the biggest increase in sales to everyone, including the elderly, is vitamin D3,” says retailer and naturopath Peter Dewdney from Planet Health & Organics, Oxford. “We’ve been here for 20 years and we’ve never seen sales as they have been in the last 15 months.” The store’s recent delivery service has seen it taking vitamin D3 – from Natures Plus, Natures Aid, Viridian, Solgar, Pharma Nord, Terranova, ‘all the classic vitamin companies’ – to people’s doors when they’ve been unable to get out.
Dewdney has seen first-hand how COVID has shone a spotlight on older people’s health. “I’ve never seen so many people of an age in the clinic than in the last six months looking at general areas of health like cholesterol, mobility, immunity. I’ve had a number of conversations with older customers and clients about how to get them out of the COVID at-risk group. For example, with type 2 diabetes – which is lifestyle-led – some assistance with blood sugar control, with diet, and all of a sudden you can take an 80-year-old off the at-risk group.”
As well as age-specific options, including Natures-Plus’ AgeLOSS line and Viridian’s 65+ Multi, Dewdney says BetterYou’s sprays and Biocare’s Nutrisorb range sell well. “Sublingual absorption natural medications are growing in popularity. The huge benefit is that it’s being absorbed straight into the blood supply, missing out the digestive tract, which is advantageous for people of age who often have digestive complaints and reduced absorbency.”
In fact, as well as recommending a gentle anti-inflammatory and EFAs, Dewdney’s third go-to supplement for healthy ageing are digestive enzymes. “We’d look at all the classic things like eye sight, joints and mobility, but the ageing process also hits the digestive system – at 70 we don’t produce the same digestive acids as a 17-year-old. I often encourage people of a certain age to look at digestive tract function. If you think 70% of your immunity is housed within the digestive tract, it’s incredibly important for the immune system.”
Dewdney believes that one of the biggest obstacles to healthy ageing is education. “Some people are completely unaware of the very clear association between good health/ill health and good diet/poor diet. I think information on the benefits of an improved diet should come from central Government. A good diet equals improved health, improved health means a better immune system, a better immune system means there’s a greater chance of doing well through this pandemic.”
According to a study in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypertension, New Zealand blackcurrant extract supplement CurraNZ has been found to help reduce central arterial stiffness and blood pressure in older adults and possibly be beneficial for maintaining or improving cardiovascular health. Researchers studied a group of healthy men and woman aged 65-plus and found the extract could reduce the age of arteries by ten years. Key findings from the trial showed that CurraNZ reduced central blood pressure by an average 10mmHg, reduced arterial stiffness in both the carotenoid and femoral arteries, and displayed ‘whole body’ improvements to vascular health. “By improving the condition of the arteries you’re reducing the consequences of ageing on the vascular system,” notes Professor Mark Willem, UK collaborator on the paper. “This … extract is somehow making blood vessels younger again.”
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