Use of government food benefits may slow cognitive aging in eligible seniors, study finds

Nutritional benefits may be an effective way to slow age-related cognitive decline, according to a new study. (Alex Segre, Alamy)

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WASHINGTON – 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, a government program that offers benefits to cover food purchases for people in need, experienced memory decline about two years or less over a decade. . period compared to 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 direct effects in 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 solve problems.

Brain aging is a natural process that occurs for several reasons.

Hormones and proteins that stimulate nerve growth and repair and protect brain cells deteriorate over time. Blood flow to the brain can also slow, and that ages it. Additionally, the hippocampus, the part of the brain that helps restore memory, can decline with age, studies show.

Health problems such as high blood pressure can damage small blood vessels in areas of the brain responsible for memory and thinking.

Scientists also think lifestyle factors such as stress, exercise and socioeconomic status can influence how a person’s brain ages.

In general, people who qualify for SNAP may already be at risk of debilitating brain aging because they are financially insecure. To qualify for this program, they must meet three criteria: monthly gross income that is generally at or below 130% of the poverty line; net income at or below the poverty line; and assets of $2,750 or less for people age 60 or older or with disabilities, or $4,250 or less for households.

The new study involved data from the Health and Retirement Study, a program supported by the National Institute on Aging. The scientists measured the memory function of 3,555 people aged 50 and older every few years from 1996 to 2016.

Improving one’s nutritional intake, general food security, all of these have been linked to better cognitive function.

–Zeki Al Hazzouri, Columbia University

The participants had an average age of 66, and nearly 3,000 of them were eligible for SNAP benefits to pay for food, but only 559 participated in the program.

The researchers measured people’s memory by asking them to complete tests of thinking and memory, such as recalling a list of words. They were also asked about what they could remember from their daily lives.

Participants using SNAP benefits had more chronic health conditions and lower incomes at the start of the study. They also had lower memory scores at the start of the study than those who did not use the benefits. However, over the course of the study, their memory declined more slowly than that of those who did not take advantage of the benefits.

“Our findings suggest that among SNAP-eligible adults, nonusers experienced 1.74 to 2.33 years more (excess) cognitive aging over a 10-year period than users,” the researchers wrote.

The study doesn’t explain the reason for this difference, but co-author Adina Zeki Al Hazzouri has some ideas.

“Increasing one’s nutritional intake, general food security, all of these have been associated with better cognitive function,” said Zeki Al Hazzouri, assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “When you have this extra money to spend on food, it frees up another big chunk of money that you can use for something else. Reducing potential financial stress can also help with brain function because we’ve shown that if you feel stressed from financially, it will affect the integrity of the brain.”

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 who are eligible. The numbers are dwindling, recent studies show.

Encouraging eligible seniors to participate in the SNAP program can have a big impact on people as they age, Zeki Al Hazzouri said. In fact, it can improve the cognitive health of tens of thousands of seniors.

Part of the challenge may lie in the registration process and required paperwork, the study found. It can be especially difficult for people who already have aging-related problems. Some may avoid applying for benefits because there is some stigma associated with the program’s requirements, Zeki Al Hazzouri said.

“I just hope more people feel that this is a program they should use if they’re eligible, because of the obvious benefits you’ll get from using SNAP, and it’s probably the same for other similar programs” like WIC and unemployment benefits.

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