Nutritional benefits may be an effective way to slow age-related cognitive decline, according to a new study.
The study, published Wednesday in the journal Neurology, found that eligible seniors who used the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the government program that provides benefits to cover food purchases for those in need, had about two years less memory decline over a decade. period than those who did not use SNAP benefits.
Previous studies have looked at the health benefits of the SNAP program in adults and children, but few have looked at the direct effects on older adults, the researchers said.
Cognitive aging is a broad way of characterizing age-related changes in the ability to think, learn, remember, plan, and problem solve.
Brain aging is a natural process that occurs for several reasons.
Hormones and proteins that stimulate neuronal growth and repair and protect brain cells decline over time. Blood flow to the brain can also slow, causing it to age. Additionally, the hippocampus, the part of the brain that helps retrieve memories, can deteriorate with age, studies show.
Health problems like high blood pressure can damage the tiny blood vessels in the areas of the brain responsible for memory and thought.
Scientists also believe that lifestyle factors like stress, exercise, and socioeconomic status can influence how a person’s brain ages.
Typically, people eligible for SNAP may already be at risk for poor brain aging due to financial insecurity. To benefit from the program, they must meet three criteria: a gross monthly income generally equal to or less than 130% of the poverty line; a net income equal to or below the poverty line; and assets of $2,750 or less for those age 60 or older or who have a disability, or $4,250 or less for a household.
The new study involved data from the Health and Retirement Study, a program supported by the National Institute on Aging. These scientists measured the memory function of 3,555 people aged 50 and over every two years from 1996 to 2016.
The participants were on average 66 years old and almost 3,000 of them were eligible to get SNAP benefits to pay for food, but only 559 participated in the program.
The researchers measured people’s memory by having them perform thinking and memory tests, such as memorizing lists of words. They were also asked what they could remember about their daily lives.
Participants who used SNAP benefits had more chronic health conditions and lower earnings at the start of the study. They also had lower memory scores at the start of the study than those who didn’t use the benefits. However, over the study period, their memories declined more slowly than the memories of those who did not experience the benefits.
“Our results suggest that among SNAP-eligible adults, nonusers experienced 1.74 to 2.33 more (excess) years of cognitive aging over a 10-year period compared to users,” the researchers write.
The study doesn’t explain what caused these differences, but co-author Adina Zeki Al Hazzouri has some ideas.
“Improving one’s nutritional intake, overall food security, all of that has been linked to better cognitive functioning,” said Zeki Al Hazzouri, assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “When you have that extra money to spend on food, it frees up another mass of money that you could use for something else. Reducing financial pressure could also help brain function, as we have shown that if you feel financially stressed, it will impact brain integrity.
Nationally, about 4.8 million people age 60 and older are enrolled in the SNAP program, according to the National Council on Aging — less than half of those eligible. The number has decreased, recent studies have shown.
Encouraging eligible seniors to participate in the SNAP program could have a big effect on people as they age, said Zeki Al Hazzouri. It could even improve the cognitive health of tens of thousands of older people.
Part of the challenge may lie in the registration process and the required documents, according to studies. This could be especially difficult for people who already have issues related to aging. Some may avoid asking for the benefits because there is a certain stigma associated with needing the program, Zeki Al Hazzouri said.
“I just hope more people think this is a program they should use if they qualify for it, because of the obvious benefits you would get from using SNAP, and potentially that could be the same for other similar programs” like WIC and unemployment benefits.
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