For good brain health, diet matters. As we’ve reported here many times, long-term consumption of a Mediterranean style diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, and olive oil, leads to better cognition in older populations.
And yet, people across nearly all demographic groups, regardless of income, have been increasing their consumption of ultra-processed foods, which now makes up 57 percent of the energy intake of the average American.
But help is coming from a surprising place: The food stamp program…
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, is the main source of nutrition assistance for those with low incomes.
In a typical month SNAP helps about 42 million Americans get the food they need. The program improves food security and allows participants to spend more on nutritious food than their limited budgets would otherwise allow.
Research emerging over the last 15 years suggests SNAP promotes better health and lowers healthcare costs, but little is known about its effects on the cognitive health of older adults. So, researchers from Columbia University, New York, decided to investigate.
Slower Rate of Memory Decline
Their study involved 3,555 people with an average age of 66 who were eligible for SNAP. Of these, 559 took advantage of the program while 2,996 chose not to take part.
Columbia researchers measured memory function every two years for 20 years. They asked participants to complete memory and thinking tests, such as recalling a list of words and answering questions about what they can remember in their everyday lives.
Because SNAP participants had a lower socioeconomic status and more chronic conditions than non-participants, the researchers used statistical techniques to adjust for these differences. After doing so they found that while SNAP users had worse memory scores at the start of the study, they had slower rates of memory decline compared to non-users over the course of the study.
Their Brains Were Two Years Younger
The key finding of the study, published in the journal Neurology in November, is explained by senior author Adina Zeki Al Hazzouri, who said, “Less than half of the older adults who are eligible for SNAP actually participate, yet our findings showed that people using SNAP experienced two fewer years of cognitive aging over ten years compared to those who did not use the program.”
That bears repeating: The brains of SNAP users were a whopping two years younger just because they chose to eat healthier foods.
What does this mean for you? Whether you’re a participant in the SNAP program or not, the research confirms the long-held belief that…
Making Healthier Food Choices Strengthens Memory
The study’s first author, Peiyi Lu, added, “While SNAP’s primary goal is to reduce food insecurity among low-income households and to increase access to higher quantity and quality foods, eating healthier may also benefit brain health.
“SNAP may also reduce stress and overall financial hardship, which has been linked to premature cognitive aging and reduced brain health. Future research should explore these underlying impacts.”
While this study focused on low-income households, the message to take from the new science is significant for the whole population, even those of us who are eating a good diet.
Because even if you eat well, that’s not enough…
“Healthy” Food Suffers Nutrient Depletion
Mounting evidence from multiple studies demonstrates that many fruits, vegetables, and grains carry less protein, vitamins, and minerals than those grown decades ago.
Meat eaters suffer, too. Cows, sheep, and pigs now feast on less nutritious grasses and grains, which makes animal-derived products less nutritious, too.
According to David R. Montgomery, a professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington in Seattle, this nutrient decline “is going to leave our bodies with fewer of the components they need to mount defenses against chronic diseases—it’s going to undercut the value of food as preventive medicine.”
What You Can Do
Senior author Adina Zeki Al Hazzouri believes this research should guide public policy on encouraging those eligible for SNAP to participate, as well as help set the nutrition guidelines within the SNAP program (and outside of it). She explains, saying, “With the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias expected to increase, this low participation (in SNAP) is a huge, missed opportunity for dementia prevention.”
As for the rest of us, the research shows what’s possible when our diets are improved. As usual my recommendation is to eat as many vegetables, fruits, lean meats, and healthy fats as possible. At the same time, avoid ultra-processed foods and refined sugars. Nutritional supplements can also help.