Nutrition benefits could 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 Assistant Program, the government program that offers benefits to cover food purchases for people in need, had about two fewer years of memory decline over a decade-long period than those who didn’t 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 to characterize age-related changes in the ability to think, learn, remember, plan and solve problems.
Brain aging is a natural process that happens for a few reasons.
Hormones and proteins that stimulate neural growth and repair and protect brain cells decline over time. Blood flow to the brain can also slow, and that ages it. 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 thinking.
Scientists also think lifestyle factors like stress, exercise and socioeconomic status can influence how someone’s brain ages.
Generally, people who are eligible for SNAP may already be at risk of poor brain aging because they are financially insecure. To qualify for the program, they must meet three criteria: a gross monthly income that is generally at or below 130% of the poverty line; a net income at or below the poverty line; and assets of $2,750 or less for people who are 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. Those scientists measured the memory function of 3,555 people 50 and older every couple of years from 1996 to 2016.
The participants had an average age of 66, and nearly 3,000 of them were eligible to get SNAP benefits to pay for food, but only 559 took part in the program.
The researchers measured people’s memories by having them complete thinking and memory tests, such as remembering lists of words. They were also quizzed on what they could remember from their daily lives.
The participants who were 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 didn’t use the benefits. However, over the study period, their memories declined more slowly than the memories of those who didn’t take advantage of the benefits.
“Our findings suggested that among SNAP-eligible adults, non-users experienced 1.74 to 2.33 more (excess) years of cognitive aging over a 10-year period compared with users,” the researchers write.
The study doesn’t explain what caused these differences, but co-author Adina Zeki Al Hazzouri has a few ideas.
“Improving one’s nutritional intake, general food security, all of these have been linked to better cognitive functioning,” said Zeki Al Hazzouri, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “When you have this extra money to spend on food, it will free up another bulk of money that you could use for something else. Decreasing the financial strain potentially could also help with brain function because we’ve shown that if you feel financially stressed, it would impact brain integrity.”
Nationally, about 4.8 million people 60 and older are enrolled in the SNAP program, according to the National Council on Aging – fewer than half of the people who are eligible. The number has been declining, recent studies have shown.
Encouraging eligible seniors to participate in the SNAP program could have a large effect on people as they age, Zeki Al Hazzouri said. It could even improve the cognitive health of tens of thousands of seniors.
Part of the challenge may lie in the process of enrolling and the paperwork required, studies have found. It could be particularly hard for people who are already having aging-related issues. Some may avoid asking for the benefits because there is some stigma associated with needing the program, Zeki Al Hazzouri said.
“I just hope more people feel that this is a program they should use if they’re eligible to, because of the clear benefits that you would get from using SNAP, and potentially this could be the same for other similar programs” like WIC and unemployment benefits.