Everybody knows that the secret to healthy aging is good food, good fitness habits and good sleep.
And everybody knows thatâs not enough.
Perhaps âeverybodyâ is an overstatement, but many people across a surprisingly broad spectrum of ages seek not to stop the clock, but maybe slow it down with supplements and other products designed to build scaffolding around that obvious and effective good food/fitness/sleep combo. They may not want to add years, but they want to add vitality. They donât hope to recapture their youth, but they want to feel the energy of youth.
The challenge for the natural products industry, and the supplement category specifically, has become pivoting the pitch away from âage reversalâ or âanti-agingâ towards the concept of healthy aging or managed aging and increasing âhealthspanâ as opposed to âlifespan,â all of this as new science makes anti-aging and even age-reversal realistic and reachable possibilities.
The Life Extension Foundation, still active in researching pathways to increased longevity, is focusing more on products for people who donât necessarily want to live longer but to live better as they age. You can still find information on cryopreservation and parabiosis (injecting plasma stem cells from young people into older patients) through the foundationâs web site and magazine, but more of the products and the messaging are aimed at the simple potentials of feeling better day to day. âWeâve had to really revamp our entire business model over the last couple of years,â says Dr. Michael Smith, the foundationâs senior health scientist. âWe were always evolving, but the evolution has really accelerated.â
Chromadex CEO Frank Jaksch sees the same dynamic. The companyâs nicotinamide ribosideÂ branded ingredient, Niagen, elevates the presence of the NAD, a molecule in cells that can reverse mitochondrial degeneration.Â NAD levels fall throughout life and increasing it could restore energy and even something approaching âyouth.â But Jaksch wonât say âyouth.â Chromadex can point to both a study by Harvard researcher Dr. David Sinclair that showed restoration of muscle cells in older mice, and a human clinical trial published in February that showed increased NAD, but the sell is not about aging, Jaksch says. Itâs about âenergy.â
âWhen you start talking about aging and anti-aging again, people get suspicious,â Jacksch says. Energy is different.Â NAD deficiency is different. âThatâs not a Ponce de Leon story.â
A new age for aging
The inevitability of aging hasnât changed, but the expectations, awareness and aspirations have. Rainbow Light CEO Linda Kahler has been working in nutrition since she started at a health food store as a teenager. She believes Baby Boomers are drawing a new blueprint for aging. âWe are the most active group of people hitting that 50+/60+ milestone in history.â
But for all the consciousness of prevention and aging management, many consumers in that demographic just want to feel better as they age, Kahler says. The goal is âright nowâ and not decades off. âPeople arenât just taking products for an insurance policy but really for immediate gain. They know what they are taking is helping them sleep better or have more energy, or all of the above.â
Being healthy is great, but feeling good is the benefit. Supplements, they believe, can help make that happen.
Designing a supplement, and naming a supplement, by age bracket requires careful planning, Kahler says. Differences in formulation may be subtle. Messaging has to be subtle too. âWe speak a little different language, but a lot of the science and technology with nutritional supplementation play similarly for different age groups,â Kahler says. The multivitamin for women in their 40s is named Rejuvenage. âWeâre not saying â40+Â multivitamin (on the label). We are not trying to point out the aging factor and make people feel older.â
Again, itâs about feeling âbetter,â and Rainbow Light shows those 40+ customers benefits that fit their concerns without pigeonholing those customers into an age bracket.
Still, for all the enlightenment and enthusiasm, the challenges may be bigger than ever. More stressful, but sedentary lives and convenient but not necessarily healthy foods havenât set up the masses for an easy aging process. Core consumers are finding solutions, but Reserveage Nutrition founder Naomi Whittel says awareness doesnât make aging well any easier. âWe are having to fight a lot more [environmental factors]than we had to fight say 20 years ago,â Whittel says, describing that litany of stress, poor diet and sedentary habits.
Against that backdrop, the difference between aspiration and eventuality leaves a big space for supplements, Whittel says. An aging population facing more problems with aging needs more solutions.Â The upside of the moment, she says, is that those solutions are more soundly based in science than ever before.
From the lab
For Jacksh, the science of aging is really the science of nutrition. The pharmaceutical industry is working hard on aging solutions. He points to the Google-funded Calico biotech research outfit as an indicator of how serious big companies are taking anti-aging. Itâs not all wild dreams and fountain of youth stories any more, he says.
That doesnât mean the solutions will all come from pharmaceutical interventions and biotech. The nutrition industry has unlimited opportunity, Jaksch says, but the âinnovation has to focus on the basics.â Thatâs where the science is headed, Jaksch says.
âWhat are the sciences working on right now?â Jacksh asks. âLinks between nutrient deficiencies and progression of diseases.â
Chromadexâs Niagen targets NAD deficiencies and a link to mitochondrial decay. Other nutraceuticals can seek other pathways.Â At the Life Extension Foundation, the pathway is the AMPK enzyme. Smith explains that AMPK affects the metabolic process and how cells use and store energy. AMPK levels fall as people age, leading to a cascade of cell damage and age-associated conditions. Metformin, a pharmaceutical, stimulates AMPK activation for diabetes patients, but Smith says the Foundation designed a nutrient formula based on the same strategy.Â The release of AMPK Activator âwas one of the biggest launches weâve had,â Smith says.
The science behind the product, Smith says, helped do something many other LEF products have failed at. The science assuages consumers that may think of life extension as a fringe dream. AMPK got around that stigma. âIt really kind of brings together the longevity enthusiasts and the simply living-better-right-now enthusiasts,â Smith says. âIt brought our customer base togetherâ
That could be happening across the aging category.
Whittel follows the science closely and says the science isnât just transforming healthy aging but also the way aging products are perceived. Years ago, Reserveageâs marketing efforts could find little traction with dermatologists and consumer press. Resveratrol had been dismissed as ineffective and the entire aging category was viewed with skepticism. Now, she says, the media is a far easier play.
An upcoming issue of Prevention magazine will cover aging science and Reservage products. âI never would have gotten that kind of story two years ago,â Whittel says. âNow I get them all the time.â
In the moment
Science-backed products bring legitimacy to the idea that anti-aging products can work in a short amount of time. The late-night infomercials promising to erase decades of skin damage were never believable, but validated research opens the categoryâs promise to people who arenât bleary-eyed and gullible at 2 a.m.
Thatâs important, Whittel says, to different consumers at different ages. Reservageâs core audience is women in their early 40s, focused on prevention, primarily skin damage, but as those consumers settle into the 50+ age group, they move that focus to conditions brought on by age.
Both groups want to believe the effect is both quick and lasting. âItâs more science,â Whittel says. âBut more science with fast results.â
Fast results is a huge hurdle for both science and marketing, Smith says. Tangible and immediate effects for a supplement strategy played out over decades is a tough play. He describes a hypothetical customer for AMPK Activator at 45. âGuess what they do? The stop taking it,â Smith says, âHow do we convince people there is a change you can perceive at that cellular level? Itâs just another challenge.â
The right benefit for the right spin
Immediate effects, long-term results and an aversion to aging that sometimes makes prevention a tough sell are all part of the tangled knot of marketing healthy aging. Erik Anderson at Nattopharma is in charge of marketing the companyâs Vitamin K2 product and has seen how complicated that knot can be. Vitamin K2 was first proposed as an osteoporosis prevention product. The effects were documented. The marketing was more complex. âWe can market K2 for bone health, but we instantly lose half our audience because men donât care.â
Now Nattopharma has proof that K2 will reverse arterial stiffening. Thatâs a different proposition, one more gender and age neutral. âOsteoporisis is an old womanâs disease but cardiovascular starts hitting us in our 40s.â
Still, itâs not that simple. Pharmaceuticals dominate in cardiovascular. âStatins were like fluoride,â Anderson says, âThey put it in the water.â Omega 3s have gotten traction in cardiovascular but for K2 âyouâve got an awareness of maybe 2 percent.â
Education is an effective answer, but even then, the focus canât be on the scare story of cardiovascular disease, Anderson says. Itâs has to be more about living than not dying. âWere selling vitality, were selling the byproduct of being healthy, the byproduct of not having stiff arteries which lead to high blood pressure, which lead to heart attack and stroke,â Anderson says.
Theyâre selling life.
Selling the right reward is vital, says Greg Paul global marketing manager for Dupont Nutrition and Health. Paul can look at segmentation of age and attitude and say a lot about how a product plays across both. The research has moved DuPontâs stance to an âAttitude not Ageâ maxim.
âSure, you could plot out sports nutrition consumers by age and see a curve skewed towards younger consumers,â Paul says.Â âBut, go ahead and position a protein powder to the 50+ crowd:Â Do you think anyone in their 20s is going to buy it?Â Now, flip it around.Â Few, if any, in their 50s will have an issue purchasing a product with a 25-year old Adonis on the label.Â People donât feel or imagine themselves to be 10 â 20 years older; it is the other way around.â
Consumers want products that solve problems associated with aging but they donât want products that are associated with aging. âEveryone knows needs change as we age, but we donât want others to know those changes have occurred,â Paul says.
So people may shy away from âage defyingâ claims but that doesnât mean they donât want to defy age with a product markted with a younger image.
The true toll
Many of the ideas around healthy aging are clearly based on a vision of what unhealthy aging looks like. âConventional medicine has increased lifespan, but it hasnât increased healthy lifespan,â Smith says. âJust go to a nursing home and youâll see older people living longer, but they donât look good.â
They donât feel good either.
Dr. Mike Hoaglin has appeared on the âDr. Ozâ and writes about integrative medicine, but he also works shifts in an emergency room and sees older patients using up all the space in the âWhat medications are you taking?â box. âThe term we use in the ER is polypharmacy,â Hoaglin says.
Older patients will see a series of specialists and accumulate a series of prescriptions. More pills and protocols donât always equal more health, Hoaglin says. Pharmaceutical companies have an interest in keeping them on those pills, he notes. âFor them, the ideal situation is that every person is taking their pill every day forever.â
Still, that doesnât mean the nutrition industry can rest in its aura of natural alternatives to âpolypharmacy,â and pursue a similar sales goal of customers locked in for decades.
Hoaglin says too many nutrition products are scattershot and ill-suited to individuals facing different challenges at different life stages and taking different medications. He points to multivitamins as an example of the ubiquitous âone size fits all approachâ in supplement marketing.
For âhealthy agingâ to become a reality through nutrition, it will have to be personalized, Hoaglin says, and that personalized nutrition is going to have to work hand-in-hand with pharmaceuticals in a the majorityÂ cases. It will also have to accommodate a moving target. âWhen you age, you donât process food or anything metabolically as well,â Hoaglin says.
And so, while those many consumers may not consider eating well, exercise and sleep to be a total solution to healthy aging, the supplement industry canât consider single products or sets of products as an unfailing solution for individual patients.
The old infomercial claims of age reversal and restored youth were empty, the supplement industry will need to work hard to keep the healthy aging concept from becoming the same.Â