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Older adults who face food insecurity may experience more rapid memory decline than those who have enough to eat, a new study finds.

Researchers from Columbia University, the University of New Mexico and the University of California, San Francisco, sought to answer the question of whether food insecurity was associated with changes in memory function among middle- to older-aged U.S. adults. The study appeared July 3 in JAMA Network Open.

To help answer this question, researchers used data from the Health and Retirement Study, an ongoing population-based cohort study of individuals aged 50 years or older. Using a sample of 12,609 study respondents, researchers examined the longitudinal relationship between food insecurity and memory function over an 18-year period.

During biannual interviews, study respondents were asked whether they always had enough money to buy food and if they ever ate less than they felt they should because they didn’t have enough money to buy food. Their memory function was then tested using a self-completed immediate and delayed word recall task of a 10-word list and other cognitive testing instruments.

Researchers found participants who were food insecure experienced greater memory loss over time than food-secure respondents.   

“In this cohort study, food insecurity was associated with slightly faster memory decline compared with food security, suggesting that food insecurity could have a long-term negative consequence on older adults’ memory function,” authors wrote.

The research supports the findings of other recent studies which show a connection between food insecurity and cognitive decline in older adults. 

The authors said further research is needed to assess the potential cognitive benefits to older adults of their expanded participation in government food assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as well as increased use of non-profit food banks and soup kitchens to improve food security.

“Future work should investigate the underlying mechanisms through which food insecurity influences cognitive health and evaluate the potential cognitive health benefits of food assistance programs,” the authors concluded.