The aged man struggled to get out of his recliner. His leg muscles could not lift his weight into a vertical position, so he fell back into the chair, exhausted. He sat there for a few minutes, trying to command his weak muscles to help him stand. He barely had strength to push upwards with his hands against armrests.
Finally in a single determined push with arms and forward momentum from rocking, he stood, though unsteadily. It took a few seconds for him to find his balance so he could then shuffle from his recliner to reach the bathroom. There he would need to sit again, and he knew that leaving the stool would be equally arduous — maybe impossible. How he dreaded the idea of becoming immobilized and unable to escape the prison of sitting.
One morbid challenge confronting Boomers as they age many not ring familiar to you. But when you think about it, you might consider aging from a different perspective. Called sarcopenia, this challenge involves muscle wasting due to aging.
Sarcopenia derives from the Latin roots, "sarco" for muscle, and "penia" for wasting, making it a “muscle wasting disease.” Sarcopenia is a byproduct of the aging process, the progressive loss of muscle fiber that begins in middle age. The process starts in our 30s but, unchecked, leads to rapid deterioration in strength and endurance in the mid-60s. Without intervention, adults can lose as much as 8% of muscle mass every ten years.
Sarcopenia propels a cascade of other medical problems. Less muscle mass and strength leads to faster fatigue. Chronic fatigue leads to less physical activity and a more sedentary lifestyle. Less activity results in fat gain and obesity. Excess weight contributes to glucose intolerance, type II diabetes and a condition called metabolic syndrome. This syndrome can then cause hypertension and increasing risk for cardiovascular disease. The end-state of sarcopenia is death.
Muscle wasting contributes dramatically to eldercare costs. Once older patients become incapable of the activities of daily living, such as rising unassisted from a recliner, they are usually institutionalized in nursing homes and assisted living facilities where most remain until death.
I recently participated in an Innovators Summit: “a unique forum where leaders representing a variety of sectors join together to design new business models, network about possibilities, and spawn new insights around the aging marketplace of the future.” Staged at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, where I was formerly advertising and public relations director, the Summit brought together professionals involved in aging services, home healthcare, architecture, homebuilding, academics, medicine, technology, wellness, retailing, and of course, marketing. Participating organizations included Ecumen, Eskaton, IDEO, GE, Pfizer, Intel and AARP.
A significant part of this exercise in “deep conversation” involved forming interdisciplinary innovation groups addressing seven topical areas, including “home based care,” “new financial models,” “dementia and cognitive health,” and “livable communities.” I joined a group discussing the future of “prevention and wellness,” an area that his interested me for decades and has involved clients of Brent Green & Associates, such as EAS, Men’s Fitness magazine, the Institute for Health Realities, Men’s Health magazine, and Nestle.
Although wellness encompasses a vast array of subspecialties, from nutrition to socialization, I suggested we focus our discussion on sarcopenia. Knowing that this clinical-sounding word needed a more innovative title, a preventative medicine physician on our team suggested “Strong Muscle, Strong Living” as a friendlier, more benefit-oriented statement of purpose.
From this starting point, the innovation team began envisioning business possibilities. We summarized our innovation as follows: “An integrated package of products and services with substantial media messaging dedicated to empowering the 50+ market to maintain muscle strength and mobility across the life span. This package includes assessment, nutrition science, exercise technology, positive messaging, mobility health and education.”
Imagine a public service media campaign developed to help adults 50+ become more aware of the hazards and risks associated with unchecked muscle wasting. What if the alien word “sarcopenia” or a friendlier euphemism became as familiar to the public as ED — erectile dysfunction? Could this campaign reduce healthcare costs by focusing 50+ adults on muscle maintenance long before the pernicious downward spiral toward frailty begins?
Our innovation team then imagined some business implications of sarcopenia mitigation as a public health priority. The first obvious area of opportunity lies in nutrition science.
Abbott, for example, recently introduced a brand extension of Ensure, its nutritional beverage supplement often associated with eldercare institutions. The company has named its new product Ensure Muscle Health. Flavored shakes include 13 grams of protein, 24 vitamins and minerals, and a quixotic new ingredient Abbott calls “Revigor,” an amino acid metabolite.
Beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate, popularly referred to as HMB, is a supplement that may act as a “protein breakdown suppressor” and thus can serve as a performance facilitator for resistance training such as weight lifting. According to some proponents, HMB boosts strength levels, enhances gains in muscle size and strength, and prevents post-workout muscle tissue breakdown. Clearly, nutrition science can become the wellspring of future supplemental food products that lessen sarcopenia progression while improving strength and endurance in older adults.
Proponents of HMB and other supplements insist that nutrition by itself will not prevent muscle wasting. Thus, opportunities abound for fitness equipment designers to develop machines and training regimens that can help Boomers work out more effectively and frequently. A fitness machine has yet to be invented that takes a lot of the work out of working out, thus helping users push through psychological resistance to resistance training.
The next successful video workout program may be waiting for a superstar proponent. For example, Jane Fonda’s Workout has been credited for launching the fitness craze among Boomers who in the 1980s were arriving in middle age.
The 73-year-old, Oscar-winning actress introduced in 2010 a new DVD set targeting older adults called Jane Fonda Prime Time. Two new videos are entitled “Walk Out” and “Fit and Strong,” with the first focused on aerobics and the second on strength training. This regimen is heading in the right direction, but the exercise level required to participate is more suited to those already experiencing handicapping physical limitations. The most on-target innovation may be a hybrid series of workouts: less aggressive than youth-oriented P90X and more challenging than Fonda’s tamed-down workout for folks already significantly limited by disabilities.
Sarcopenia, a mystical word not to be confused with a Greek isle in the Aegean Sea, stimulates grand possibilities for innovation… in nutrition science, fitness equipment, video training programs, retirement community social engineering, public education, consumer products, and marketing budgets to sell all the aforementioned opportunities. Our innovation team agreed that not only can a national focus on sarcopenia potentially mitigate premature aging and death, but this agenda could further reduce spurious healthcare financial burdens confronting the nation.
Strong muscles mean stronger, sometimes longer lives. Through sarcopenia mitigation, Boomers can compress their morbidity — thereby lessening the burdens of old age illnesses by compressing an unwanted time of life into the shortest period possible before the final exit.
To visualize this cultural and business revolution personified, think of Jack LaLanne, a pioneer in fitness and strength training, who had a robust and productive life until age 96, dying from pneumonia after just a few weeks of illness. Strong muscles, strong life, quick death from natural causes. The circle of life doesn’t come full circle any better.