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Dear White House: Nutrition is Critical Component of Healthy Aging

The 2015 White House Conference on Aging (WHCOA), to be held this summer, is a work in progress with great and promising potential. It will be the sixth Conference on Aging in history, the second one held this century, and aims to shape aging policy for the next decade.

One of the four issue areas of focus for the Conference is healthy aging. The WHCOA website says that this includes exercise, health screenings, and immunizations, as well as not smoking—in short, a greater focus on prevention. Prevention is a topic which I often discuss, though my focus is more on nutrition. I recently had the opportunity to address this at an Ohio forum hosted by the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, which was held as a lead up to the listening forum held in the area by the WHCOA. The main point I made was that good nutrition practiced throughout the lifespan can lead to healthier aging.

This summer, we also celebrate a number of anniversaries of key programs, including the 50th anniversary of the Older Americans Act (OAA). The OAA’s largest program focuses on nutrition and encompasses the congregate and home-delivered meals programs as well as education. It is documented that the OAA reduces food insecurity and isolation, but there is another benefit yet undocumented: how much it saves Medicare and Medicaid.

Why is resolving the nutrition issue so important? For one thing, the three major chronic diseases that impact 87 percent of seniors—diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol or some combination—can be prevented and/or managed with appropriate nutrition interventions. Overall, lack of good nutrition drives up health care costs.

And the problem is only getting worse. For example, the number of food insecure seniors has more than doubled since 2001, from 2.3 million to 5.3 million. We spend $157 billion per year overall on disease-related malnutrition in the United States; a malnourished patient’s medical costs will be 300% higher. A National Health Interview survey of 10,000 adults with chronic illness found that one in three reported being unable to afford food, medicines or both. In fact, typical medication non-adherence (not taking medications as instructed) is 50 percent. Fortunately programs like Medicare Part D help ensure seniors can access their medications, but we are not doing enough to address hunger and malnutrition.

Thus, these problems of food insecurity, hunger and malnutrition and growing number of older persons affected must be addressed. Some solutions and ideas to consider: 

  • Declare food insecurity, hunger and malnutrition as domestic emergencies, which could allow greater resources to be applied to their reductions. Calculate the overall cost to government of these three.
  • Expand access to healthy foods in all federally funded nutrition programs; reduce price disparity between cheap bad food and expensive good food.
  • Add basic nutrition screening, interventions and other information into the electronic health records of the future.
  • Modernize the locations where older adults get their meals and offer related health services.
  • Expand medical nutrition therapy to include diabetes.
  • Expand Affordable Care Act Essential Health Benefits to include nutrition screening and therapy.
  • Reexamine goals of Healthy People 2020 and build in a stronger emphasis on malnutrition prevention.

In the end, the WHCOA must produce a stronger call to collective action on healthy aging and determine what individuals, families, communities, and the private sector can do to help solve this rampant problem. This is a critically important topic to address as a society which accomplishes healthy aging is stronger in all regards. I commend the WHCOA for including this as a goal, but would like to ensure that good nutrition is also a central focus.

To learn more about the WHCOA, learn more about the four focus areas, and get involved, visit the website.