The connection between a nutritious diet and good health is well established but new research has demonstrated that food insecurity among older adults is also linked with hastening cognitive decline. The study findings, recently published in JAMA Network Open, highlight the importance of addressing hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity among vulnerable seniors.
According to Medscape Medical News, the number of Americans over 60 who reported food insecurity more than doubled between 2007 and 2020, reaching an estimated 5.2 million seniors. Malnutrition is associated with a more rapid decline in executive function among older adults, but participating in food assistance programs has been shown to slow memory deterioration.
Using data from 3,037 community-dwelling seniors over 65 who participated in the National Health and Aging Trends Study, food security, memory and executive function were tracked. For the purpose of the study, food insecurity was defined as going without groceries due to limited ability or social support, a lack of hot meals, missing meals because of the inability to feed oneself or find support, and skipping meals due to insufficient food or money, or skipping meals for 5 days or more.
Over 7 years, between 2012 and 2019, 12.1 percent of participants reported food insecurity at least once. Those more likely to report food insecurity included older, female, minority, single, obese and lower-income seniors. Older adults with less education, depressive symptoms, social isolation and disability were also more likely to experience food insecurity.
Because food insecurity is preventable and could help prevent faster cognitive decline in seniors, clinicians should be aware of the risk for cognitive problems and screen for food insecurity, referring patients to food assistance programs to help them access nutritious meals. Food insecurity is frequently associated with other problems, such as poor medication adherence and lack of regular medical care, that can worsen cognitive degeneration.
Because many seniors downplay food insecurity, researchers suspect the actual number of older adults with food insecurity is significantly higher. Connecting vulnerable older adults with food assistance programs and nutritious meals could help slow or prevent dementia from progressing while improving overall health and quality of life.