Well-Being Prevention & Cures

Food insecurity linked to cognitive decline: research

For seniors, unstable access to food raises the risk of cognitive decline.
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Story at a glance

  • The nationally representative study found food insecurity was linked with accelerated declines in executive functions necessary for everyday activities.

  • Women, those who don’t live with a partner and those with lower educational attainment were more likely to experience food insecurity.

  • Interventions aimed at addressing food quality, preferences, and transportation may help boost food access for older Americans.  

Seniors with uncertain access to food experienced faster declines in executive function compared with those who were not food insecure, new research shows. 

The findings come as pandemic-era Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits ended for millions of Americans earlier this month.

Experts from Johns Hopkins University carried out the study using data from over 3,000 Medicare beneficiaries. 

Over the course of seven years, 417 seniors reported experiencing food insecurity—defined as uncertain access to or inability to acquire nutritionally adequate foods in socially acceptable ways— at least once. 

Results showed no association between food insecurity and changes in immediate and delayed memory, however. 

The faster declines in executive function seen among adults with food insecurity could be the result of unhealthy eating patterns, poor disease management, or a lack of cognitive reserve. In addition, “food insecurity indicating financial strain is associated with higher levels of stress,” researchers wrote. 

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“Chronic and repeated exposure to psychosocial stress can lead to dysregulation in inflammatory, cardiovascular, and metabolic systems, and the pathophysiological allostatic states consequently result in cognitive decline as well as other chronic diseases related to cognitive declines such as hypertension and diabetes.”

It’s estimated more than five million adults over the age of 60 experienced food insecurity in 2020, while that total has more than doubled since 2007, the study’s authors wrote.

Data were gleaned from the National Health and Aging Trends Study. Each year, participants underwent detailed in-person interviews, though the information was collected over the phone in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Annual cognitive function assessments were compared with food insecurity measurements reported during the previous year. All study participants lived in communities as opposed to residential care settings.

Seniors who experienced food insecurity were more likely to be older, female and part of racial or ethnic minority groups. These seniors were also more likely to not live with a partner, be obese, and have lower incomes and educational attainment, along with depressive symptoms, social isolation, and disability.

“The effect of the association between food insecurity and executive function is small, but subtle decline can indicate preclinical dementia and further cognitive decline in multiple domains,” authors cautioned. 

Because of this, and because food insecurity is preventable, researchers stressed the importance of policies and interventions that address food quality, preferences, transportation, preparation, and purchase to help boost access.

For those already experiencing food insecurity or who are at a higher risk, additional interventions to help prevent or delay cognitive decline could include promoting exercise, stress management, or social groups. 

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