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Food insecurity increases cognitive decline in older adults

Scientists have long known that older adults living with food insecurity are more likely to face malnutrition, depression, and physical limitations which significantly affect their life quality. Although research has shown that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – U.S.’s largest federally funded nutrition-assistance program – has managed to reduce hunger and food insecurity in the general population, not much is known about how SNAP impacts brain aging in older adults.

Now, a team of scientists led by Pennsylvania State University has examined the relationship between food insecurity, SNAP, and cognitive decline and discovered that food sufficiency and participation in SNAP can mitigate accelerated cognitive decline in the elderly.

The researchers analyzed a representative sample of 4,578 older U.S. adults who had to report their food insecurity and were classified as either food sufficient or insufficient. According to their SNAP status, they were also classified as SNAP participants, SNAP-eligible nonparticipants, and SNAP-ineligible nonparticipants.

The analysis revealed that rates of cognitive decline were similar in SNAP participants and SNAP-ineligible nonparticipants, both of which were lower that those of SNAP-eligible nonparticipants. Moreover, the greatest rate of cognitive decline found in the food insecure group was equivalent to being 3.8 years older, while the greatest rate observed in the SNAP-eligible nonparticipants was equivalent to being 4.5 years older.

“For an aging population, roughly four years of brain aging can be very significant,” said study lead author Muzi Na, an assistant professor of Nutritional Sciences at Penn State. “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.”

However, further research is needed to comprehensively assess the impact of addressing food insecurity and promoting SNAP participation on the cognitive health of older adults.

The study is published in The Journal of Nutrition.


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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