Food insecurity is common in the United States, even among our older neighbors. According to Feeding America, 5.5 million Americans aged 60 and older were food insecure in 2021. That’s about 1 in 14 seniors. This may not just be impacting their physical health, either, but also their brain health.
Research recently published in JAMA Network Open investigated how food insecurity impacts dementia risk and memory. Using data from more than 7,000 seniors, the study showed that food insecurity was linked with increased estimated dementia risk, as well as lower memory scores and faster memory decline. The researchers say this shows the need for policy changes to address the issue.
The study authors write, “Our findings highlight the need to improve food security in older adults and that doing so may protect individuals from cognitive decline and dementia. Bolstering SNAP by making it easier for older adults who are SNAP eligible to apply could potentially mitigate the negative association food insecurity has with brain health.”
The research involved 7,012 people whose data was drawn from the national Health and Retirement Study in 2013. Their average age was 67, with just under 60% women and just over 40% men. Among all the study subjects 65 and older, 11% reported being food insecure, along with 28% of those under 65. This was more common among women, non-Hispanic Black or Hispanic adults, renters, those who lived in poverty, those who received greater welfare support, and those who had fewer years of schooling. Unmarried adults were also more impacted by the issue.
The researchers found that those with low food security and very low food security were 1.38 and 1.37 times more likely, respectively, to develop dementia than those who were food secure. At age 70, low and very low food security were also linked with worse memory levels and a faster rate of age-related memory decline.
The researchers say that those afflicted with food insecurity are often from disadvantaged groups that already face elevated dementia risk, highlighting how socioeconomic status may impact health.
They write, “We also found that individuals experiencing food insecurity were, on average, younger and had lower educational attainment compared with those with food security. These findings suggest that food insecurity is more common among the same socioeconomically disadvantaged groups who are at high risk of dementia. Together, these findings highlight the role that social determinants of health may play later in life.”
Overall, the team says their study used a large and diverse sample to provide more evidence on possible public health impacts of food insecurity, showing the need for policy change to tackle the issue.