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Stress of Food Insecurity Takes Toll on Older Adults

Study suggests food assistance programs can mitigate harm

Lonely and depressed senior male sitting alone at kitchen table eating a microwaved ready meal of curry from plastic tray
Backyard Productions / Alamy Stock Photo

A new study published in JAMA Network Open finds older Americans who struggle to put food on the table are likely to suffer from chronic stress that puts greater wear and tear on their bodies.​

However, the researchers behind the study say the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) appears to alleviate the harmful effects of the additional stress, according to their analysis of health data from 14,394 adults age 50 and older.

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​​As part of the study, researchers developed a composite allostatic load (AL) score (ranging from zero to 9) for the older adults based on blood pressure, cholesterol, body mass index and other biomarkers associated with the “physiologic wear and tear that the body experiences due to chronic stress exposure and repeated activation of the adaptive stress response.”​​

After adjusting for other factors, the researchers found adults with not enough money to buy the food they need (moderately food insecure) and adults who have reduced their food intake due to financial constraints (severely food insecure) were more likely to have a higher AL score than the nearly 91 percent of adults with the resources to pay for their needed food (food secure).​​

“The results showed a 5 percent increase in AL associated with being moderately food insecure and an 11 percent increase associated with being severely food insecure, adjusted for demographic and socioeconomic confounders,” according to the study.

​​Additionally, they found evidence that suggests participation in SNAP may lower the stress that contributes to the additional wear and tear on adults with moderate and severe food insecurity.​​“

SNAP may protect against the adverse health outcomes noted with food insecurity increasing AL,” the study concluded.

Peter Urban is a contributing writer and editor who focuses on health news. Urban spent two decades working as a correspondent in Washington, D.C., for daily newspapers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Ohio, California and Arkansas, including a stint as Washington bureau chief for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. His freelance work has appeared in Scientific American, Bloomberg Government and CTNewsJunkie.com.

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