The brain naturally ebbs as you age … but food insecurity may make it worse.
Much of the conversation on food insecurity tends to focus on the health of children. Limited access to healthy food may not only affect a child’s development, but it may also cause them to have challenges in school, which requires high amounts of concentration, physical and mental energy, and discipline.
However, a study released June 2019 showed that food insecurity has even bigger cognitive health effects that may be longer lasting. According to the study, adults who were food insecure suffered greater declines in cognitive health than their peers who were not food insecure.
What Is Food Insecurity?
Being in a state of food insecurity means either someone cannot afford a consistent supply of nutritious food (and may experience sustained hunger and lapses in meals), or that someone lives in a place without sufficient access to nutritious foods. (Learn more about the definition of food insecurity here.)
People with food insecurity aren’t always hungry. It may mean they rely on cheaper, processed foods from convenience stores or fast food restaurants because they don’t have access to a full-service grocery store with fresh (and affordable) fruits and veggies.
As a result, people who are food insecure may be undernourished (due to lack of food) or malnourished (due to “enough” yet poor-quality food). Either way, being food insecure increases the risk for a number of chronic health conditions, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Food Insecurity + the Brain: About the Study
The new study—which was done by researchers at the University of California, San Franciscio—surveyed over 1,800 adults aged 60 and older from low-income households. About 24 percent of the surveyed adults met the criteria for food insecurity.
For the study, the adults were asked to complete a variety of exams that are commonly used to assess cognitive function among those with or at risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. That includes the animal fluency test (in which the patient is asked to name as many animals as possible within a minute) and the digit symbol substitution test (in which a patient matches symbols to numbers according to a key).
Despite being a similar age and income bracket, the participants who were food insecure consistently scored lower on the cognitive tests, compared to the surveyed adults who were food secure.
How Does Food Insecurity Affect Brain Function?
Some cognitive impairment is common as you age, but various lifestyle or environmental factors can make impairment worse for some people. This also increases the risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, which cause severe impairment that may negatively affect your quality of life. (Here are brain-boosting rules for a sharper mind for life.)
One of the risk factors for poor cognitive health is, unsurprisingly, a low-quality diet, according to the National Institute on Aging. This makes sense, since unhealthy diets can obstruct blood vessels and lead to reduced blood flow to the brain. Similarly, those who can’t afford nutritious food may lack the proper nutrients to keep all their organs—including the noggin—healthy and strong.
Cognitive health doesn’t just help you pass a vocab test: It is essential for a positive quality of life. That means access to affordable and healthy food (throughout the lifespan) is crucial in order to nourish a U.S. population that’s robust in both body and mind.
Jaeger J. Digit symbol substitution test: the case for sensitivity over specificity in neuropsychological testing. J Clin Psychopharmacol. 2018 Oct;38(5):513-9.
Portela-Parra ET, Leung CW. Food insecurity is associated with lower cognitive functioning in a national sample of older adults. J Nutr. 2019 Oct;149(10):1812-7.
Risks to cognitive health. Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Aging, 2017. (Accessed on November 15, 2019 at https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/risks-cognitive-health.)
What are the psychological effects of hunger on children? Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. (Accessed on November 15, 2019 at https://www.apa.org/advocacy/socioeconomic-status/hunger.pdf.)