URBANA, Ill. - In a country as wealthy as the United States, it may come as a surprise that one in 12 seniors do not have access to adequate food due to lack of money or other financial resources. They are food insecure.
Recent research at the University of Illinois using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) revealed that the seniors who are dealing with hunger are also facing negative health and nutrition consequences.
"In 2011, 8.35 percent of Americans over age 60 faced the threat of hunger—that translates to 4.8 million people," said Craig Gundersen, University of Illinois soybean industry endowed professor in agricultural strategy in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics and executive director of the National Soybean Research Laboratory who led the data analysis on the study.
Hand-in-hand with hunger goes a lower intake of calories, vitamins, and other nutrients, which puts them at risk for a wide variety of ailments.
"Seniors who are food insecure reported higher incidence of diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart attack, gum disease, and a host of other health problems than adults their age who are food secure," Gundersen said. "In addition, food-insecure seniors have worse general health outcomes, more daily activity limitations, and are more likely to suffer from depression.
While there has been other research examining the health consequences of food insecurity among seniors, they don't use nationally representative data sets. This research provides the most complete portrait of health and food insecurity among older Americans.
Because of the extensive data, the study was able to compare seniors over the age of 60 to those ages 50 to 59. This afforded the researchers a snapshot of what that slightly younger group had to look forward to as they entered their "golden" years. The younger age group already mirrored similar statistics for nutrients in their diet and poor health.
"Food insecurity rates among seniors were almost three times as high if grandchildren were present in the home in comparison to homes without grandchildren present," Gundersen said. "And those seniors with grandchildren in the house had lower nutrient intakes than those without grandchildren. We think this may be because adults in households with grandchildren are foregoing healthy diets in order to make sure their grandchildren have enough to eat."
Gundersen said that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) has been demonstrated to reduce food insecurity. He recommends that policymakers and program administrators pursue efforts to increase participation in SNAP, with a particular emphasis on older adults.
"Food Insecurity and Health among Senior Americans" was prepared for Feeding America and the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger in 2014 by Craig G. Gundersen from the University of Illinois and by James P. Ziliak of the University of Kentucky Center for Poverty Research.