Food and Water

Here's how food insecurity ages the brain

Older woman with herbs in supermarket vegetable aisle

Food insecurity can lead to greater cognitive decline in older adults. Image: Unsplash

Zachary Sweger
Author, Futurity
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Food Security

  • Food insecurity is a growing global problem that can have serious consequences for people's health.
  • The US government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has been shown to reduce hunger and food insecurity in the general population.
  • But so far there has been little research into how SNAP affects the brain ageing of older adults, scientists say.
  • Here, they explain the results of their investigation into food insecurity, SNAP and cognitive decline in the older population.
  • Their findings highlight the importance of food security for people as they age and the value of such programmes in improving people’s cognitive health.

Older adults living with food insecurity are more likely to experience malnutrition, depression, and physical limitations that affect how they live, a new study shows.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the largest federally funded nutrition-assistance program in the United States, and research has shown that SNAP reduces hunger and food insecurity in the general population.

Little evidence is available, however, on how SNAP may affect brain aging in older adults. To bridge this knowledge gap, researchers investigated the relationship between food insecurity, SNAP, and cognitive decline. They found that food sufficiency and participation in SNAP may help protect against accelerated cognitive decline in older adults.

The researchers analyzed a representative sample of 4,578 older adults in the United States using data from the National Health and Aging Trends Study, 2012-20. Participants reported their experiences with food insecurity and were classified as food sufficient or food insufficient.

The SNAP status was defined as SNAP participants, SNAP-eligible nonparticipants, and SNAP-ineligible nonparticipants. The researchers found that food insecure adults experienced cognitive declines more rapidly than their food secure peers.

The researchers identified different trajectories of cognitive decline using food insufficiency status or SNAP status. Rates of cognitive decline were similar in SNAP participants and SNAP-ineligible nonparticipants, both of which were slower than the rate of SNAP-eligible nonparticipants.

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The greater cognitive decline rate observed in the food insecure group was equivalent to being 3.8 years older, whereas the greater cognitive decline rate observed in the SNAP-eligible nonparticipant group was equivalent to being 4.5 years older.

“For an aging population, roughly four years of brain aging can be very significant,” says Muzi Na, assistant professor of nutritional sciences at Penn State, and lead author of the study in the Journal of Nutrition.

“These results really point to the importance of food security for people as they age and the value that SNAP can have in improving people’s cognitive health as they age. We need to make sure that people have access to—and encourage them to use—the SNAP program as they age.”

Future studies are warranted to investigate the impact of addressing food insecurity and promoting SNAP participation on cognitive health in older adults, Na says.

Additional coauthors are from Brown University, the University of South Carolina, the University of North Carolina Wilmington, the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and Penn State.

The Broadhurst Career Development Professorship for the Study of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention and the National Institute of Mental Health supported the work.

Source: Penn State

Original Study DOI: 10.1016/j.tjnut.2022.12.012

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