April 2011 Issue

As America Ages — Boomers Need Nutrition Education Now More Than Ever Before
By David Yeager
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 13 No. 4 P. 14

In 1900, the United States was a young nation, not only in a historical context, but also in the age of its citizenry: The percentage of the U.S. population that was aged 65 or older was just 4.1%. By 2010, that percentage had climbed to 13%. By 2040, the Administration on Aging estimates that 20% of the population will be 65 or older. This ongoing demographic shift is sure to cause many changes in American life.

This year, the first members of the baby boomer generation—generally considered to include people born between 1946 and 1964—will be eligible for full Social Security benefits. One looming problem is how to pay for it. The Social Security Disability Insurance Trust Fund, as it is currently managed, will run out of money by 2018, and the Social Security Old Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund—by far the larger of the two—is expected to be depleted by 2040, according to the 2010 annual report of the Social Security and Medicare Trustees. The same report projects that the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund will run out of money by 2029.

If no changes are made to these programs, their funds will be depleted within a generation. If changes are made, it’s a virtual certainty that federal allotments per person will shrink, leaving less money to help feed and care for retirees at a time in their lives when they are more likely to experience acute health problems or chronic medical conditions. It would seem there is a need for solutions that won’t add a lot of money to the cost of maintaining health. One solution is to address the way people eat. According to Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, the sooner the better.

“I think we already know that two thirds of Americans are overweight or obese so, already, I see a population that’s going to be looking for weight control,” says Gerbstadt. “And then [when you consider] all the diseases associated with overweight and obesity, like diabetes, high blood pressure, and chronic kidney disease, of course the numbers are going to increase.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), overweight and obesity accounted for 9.1% of total medical costs in 2006, the most recent year for which data are available. The CDC estimates that $147 billion is spent annually to treat medical conditions associated with overweight and obesity. Clearly, reducing waistlines can produce significant cost savings while improving people’s quality of life. For instance, Dee Sandquist, MS, RD, LD, CDE, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, says baby boomers generally consume too many calories, especially from solid fats and added sugars, as well as too much sodium, cholesterol, and refined grains.

But it’s not simply a matter of losing weight. Gerbstadt says more retirement-aged people than ever before are becoming health conscious and showing interest in organic and sustainable foods. This appears to be a positive trend but without nutrition education, there are some risks associated with it.

“Boomers have been raised in the world of fad diets, and many may have a distorted relationship with food,” says Sandquist. “Some boomers may jump on the latest fountain of youth bandwagon. Others may display symptoms of orthorexia, an obsession with eating healthy foods.”

According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, nutrients of concern are potassium, dietary fiber, calcium, and vitamin D. And people over the age of 50 may be less able to absorb vitamin B12. The challenge of meeting these dietary needs will grow as boomers confront shrinking incomes and, potentially, fewer social contacts in their retirement years.

Gerbstadt says it’s hard to predict how living on a fixed income will affect eating habits. She says many people have begun to limit fast food purchases because of concerns about high amounts of calories, sodium, and saturated fat coupled with fewer fresh vegetable and whole grain choices. But less income means there’s less money available to eat at more expensive restaurants that may have a wider array of healthful choices. To make the situation more complicated, many retirees would rather not cook a big meal, especially if they’re only cooking for themselves or one other person.

“Being on a fixed budget puts a lot of constraints on eating out in restaurants,” says Gerbstadt. “People are going to look for simple-to-prepare or quick-to-prepare foods that they can pick up at the grocery store [and are more budget friendly].”

Because it seems likely that more boomers will eat out less frequently, they may require more education about how to read nutrition labels and prepare food. Gerbstadt says people who are dealing with decreased mobility, increased caregiving responsibilities, or moving to planned communities may need assistance with planning and preparing meals. She says healthful cooking classes and food demonstrations geared toward seniors are a good way for dietitians to connect with retirees. They can cover anything from how to shop to how to cook for one to how to cook for company. The classes can be held in community centers, at health fairs, or at other social events that retirees frequent. Some grocery stores have even hired RDs.

“Some retail grocers have RDs at the corporate level and others, such as Hy-Vee, a Midwest supermarket, have RDs in stores,” says Sandquist.

Gerbstadt says libraries are also good places for nutrition education. Not everyone can afford a Kindle, but public libraries are still free. Many libraries have Internet access, so people can do research on government websites. She says RDs can also use local media outlets to disseminate information, possibly doing a short spot on local TV describing how to make quick, healthful meals or writing articles for the local newspaper. All of these strategies will be necessary because it’s likely that fewer boomers will be able to afford nutrition counseling.

“People don’t really want to go to a registered dietitian unless their insurance is going to cover it, so even though medical nutrition therapy will still be available, it’s considered a luxury by most people,” says Gerbstadt. “If you need it, you need it, but getting nutrition counseling may not be seen as a budget priority when you have to pay out of pocket for it.”

However the message is delivered, it is one that needs to be heard. The baby boomer generation has changed the United States throughout its lifetime, and there’s no reason to expect that trend to change in the years ahead. Dietitians can help ease boomers’ transition to retirement by providing up-to-date, practical, and personalized information about nutrition.

“We need to listen and meet them where they are with information for their personalized needs,” says Sandquist.

— David Yeager is a freelance writer and editor based in Royersford, Pa.