, new research shows. Researchers assessed the memory function of more than 3,500 persons who used SNAP or did not use SNAP over a period of 20 years. They found that those who didn’t use the food benefits program experienced 2 more years of cognitive aging compared with program users.
Of the 3,555 individuals included in the study, all were eligible to use the benefits, but only 559 did, leaving 2,996 participants who did not take advantage of the program.
Low program participation levels translate into a missed opportunity to prevent dementia, said study investigator Adina Zeki Al Hazzouri, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Columbia Aging Center at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York.
She said that priorhas shown that stigma may prevent older Americans from using SNAP. “Educational programs are needed to reduce the stigma that the public holds towards SNAP use,” she said.
Policy change could increase usage among older individuals, Dr. Zeki Al Hazzouri noted. Such changes could include simplifying enrollment and reporting procedures, shortening recertification periods, and increasing benefit levels.
Dr. Zeki Al Hazzouri and her team assessed respondents from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a representative sample of Americans aged 50 and older. All respondents who were eligible to participate in SNAP in 1996 were followed every 2 years until 2016.
At each assessment, HRS respondents completed memory tests, including immediate and delayed word recall. For those who were too impaired to complete the interview, proxy informants – typically, their spouses or family members – assessed the memory and cognition of their family members using validated instruments, such as the 16-item Informant Questionnaire for Cognitive Decline.
Investigators used a validated memory function composite score, which is benchmarked against the memory assessments and evaluations of the Aging, Demographics, and Memory Study (ADAMS) cohort.
The team found that compared with nonusers, SNAP users were more likely to be women, Black, and born in the southern United States. They were less likely to be married and had more chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, heart problems, psychiatric problems, and arthritis.
One important study limitation was that SNAP use was measured only once during the study, the investigators noted. Ideally, Dr. Zeki Al Hazzouri said, future research would examine cumulative SNAP use history and explore the pathways that might account for the association between SNAP use and memory decline.
While findings suggest that there were no significant differences in baseline memory function between SNAP users and nonusers, users experienced approximately 2 fewer years of cognitive aging over a 10-year period than those who didn’t use the program.
Dr. Zeki Al Hazzouri speculated that SNAP benefits may slow cognitive aging by contributing to overall brain health and that, in comparison with nonusers, SNAP users absorb more nutrients, which promote neuronal integrity.
The investigators theorized that SNAP benefits may reduce stress from financial hardship, which has been linked to premature cognitive aging in other research.
“SNAP may also increase the purchasing power and investment in other health preserving behaviors, but also resulting in better access to care, which may in turn result in better disease management and management of risk factors for cognitive function,” the investigators wrote.