Every three seconds, someone in the world develops dementia, according to Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI). That means by the time you finish this article, 40 or more new people will be facing this debilitating disease, for which there is no cure.
This fact is alarming because maintaining cognitive health—your brain’s ability to think, learn, and remember clearly—is a critical component of healthy aging. Fortunately, you can reduce your dementia risk with healthy lifestyle habits, such as eating a nutritious diet. However, food security and access to healthy foods that support brain health can be issues for older adults, especially those of a lower socioeconomic status.
Now, a new study reveals that older Americans receiving support with grocery shopping through a government assistance program can slash their risk of declining cognitive function. Keep reading to learn how it can help prevent dementia, and what it means for your brain health.
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When it comes to food security (limited or uncertain access to adequate food), older adults are at greater risk due to a number of factors. Trista Best, RD, a registered dietitian with Balance One Supplements, tells Best Life, “A variety of life circumstances can place older adults at risk of food insecurity, whether it’s early health-related retirement, lack of family support, high rates of debt, sudden loss of income, undiagnosed physical or mental health conditions, poor financial planning, and more. These individuals can benefit from food assistance programs if they’re able to apply.”
Food assistance programs can be beneficial in helping older adults maintain access to healthy foods that support brain health and may prevent cognitive decline. For example, several studies have shown that food insecurity may increase dementia risk and limit cognitive function during aging, often due to decreased diet quality and increased mental distress as you age.
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A new study published in Neurology found that older U.S. adults who participated in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—formerly known as the food stamp program—have lower rates of memory decline than their counterparts who were eligible, but didn’t participate in the program. Specifically, researchers noted that improving food security among adults aged 50 and older can enhance their nutritional intake and lead to better brain function, thereby reducing the risk of cognitive decline and dementia.
“Less than half of the older adults who are eligible for SNAP actually participate, yet our findings showed that people using SNAP experienced two fewer years of cognitive aging over ten years compared to those who did not use the program,” said senior author Adina Zeki Al Hazzouri, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, in a statement. “With the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias expected to increase, this low participation is a huge, missed opportunity for dementia prevention.”
Researchers examined data from people who were eligible for SNAP and participated in the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a population-based study of U.S. adults aged 50 and older. Among them, 3,555 people were eligible for SNAP and had memory and cognition tests done every two years from 1996 to 2016. Only 559 participants used SNAP, while the others did not. The results indicated that older Americans who didn’t use SNAP experienced 1.74 to 2.33 more years of cognitive aging over ten years compared to those enrolled in the program.
“Older adults participating in SNAP have lower rates of cognitive decline. This is likely due to having access to higher nutrient foods that support brain function and lower the risk for chronic illness,” explains Best. “SNAP benefits also allow them to afford doctor visits and necessary medications to support their overall health, including cognition.”
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Ultimately, educating people on proper nutrition and giving them access to healthy food is a surefire way to boost brain health and reduce dementia risk.
Peiyi Lu, PhD, a postdoctoral research scientist in the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia Mailman School, said in a statement, “While SNAP’s primary goal is to reduce food insecurity among low-income households and to increase access to higher quantity and quality foods, eating healthier may also benefit brain health. SNAP may also reduce stress and financial hardship, which has been linked to premature cognitive aging and reduced brain health. Future research should explore these underlying impacts.”