Food security reigned as a key social determinant of health for one in seven adults ages 50 to 80, even before the coronavirus pandemic brought that health need to bare, according to the most recent data from the University of Michigan’s National Poll on Healthy Aging.
The poll of 2,000 adult patients ages 50 to 80, conducted in partnership with the AARP, underscored the rising need for food access in the nation, the link between food access and other key social determinants of health, and how food access impacts overall wellness.
Food security challenges are more prevalent among those in their pre-Medicare years, black or Latinx patients, and low-income households or adults with lower levels of educational attainment, the survey showed.
Those trends point to the link between other defining social determinants of health and food security, the survey administrators suggested. Race and educational attainment are closely linked to income, which can influence whether a patient can afford groceries and nutritious food.
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It may also affect how close a patient lives to a food center, as geography can also serve as a barrier to food access.
Meanwhile, only one-third of individuals with reported food security issues were on some sort of food access support program, like SNAP. Fewer than 2 percent of adults over age 60 received food via Meals on Wheels or free meals at senior centers.
“This research reaffirms that many older adults struggle to afford the food they need, and are not using available food and nutrition assistance programs,” said Alison Bryant, PhD, senior vice president of research for AARP. “The current crisis makes it even more urgent to ensure that our most vulnerable populations can access the nutrition they need.”
Limited access to food, and especially healthy and nutritious food, can have serious consequences, according to Julia Wolfson, PhD, MPP.
“Food-insecure older adults were three times more likely to say they were in fair or poor physical health, and nearly five times as likely to say they were in fair or poor mental health,” explained Wolfson, who is also an assistant professor of health management and policy at the School of Public Health.
Patients who reported food security challenges were likewise more likely to say their diets are fair or poor, underscoring that limited food access is tied to nutrition, which is subsequently tied to health. Nutritious food is often more expensive or harder to come by, and it is likely the limiting factors of income and racial inequality that keep some older adults from healthier food options.
“Access to nutritious food and health status are closely linked, yet this poll reveals major disparities in that access,” Preeti Malani, MD, the poll’s director and a professor of internal medicine at Michigan Medicine, pointed out.
And this could be even worse now that COVID-19 has ravaged the nation. Stay-at-home orders, social distancing, food shortages, and issues with the food supply chain are all making it hard for adults over age 50 to access nutritious meals.
Limited food access could be disastrous for individuals displaying COVID-19 symptoms, those with chronic illness, or simply those in dire need.
“Even as we focus on preventing the spread of coronavirus, we must also ensure that older adults can get food that aligns with any health conditions they have, so we don’t exacerbate diabetes, hypertension, digestive disorders and other conditions further,” Melani stated.
Perhaps the silver lining, however, is that the coronavirus outbreak has shined a light on those social risk factors and population health needs, noted Cindy Leung, ScD, MPH, a member of the University of Michigan Institute of Healthcare Policy and Innovation.
“These data suggest an important opportunity, which is likely even more urgent now, to connect older adults with resources they may not know about, and to explore public policies that could improve access,” Leung, who is also an assistant professor of nutritional sciences at the U-M School of Public Health, said.
There has been some progress since the COVID-19 outbreak, the poll’s administrators explained. Federal programs supporting Meals on Wheels and other food security programs for seniors have opened up some funds to expand their meal delivery services.
In Michigan, policymakers have made new funds available to expand meal delivery, while the US Department of Agriculture, which operates SNAP, has made it easier for individuals to qualify for the benefit. Organizations like AARP are likewise calling on USDA and Congress to temporarily increase the maximum benefit and minimum monthly benefit for SNAP.
The AARP has also made its own contributions to food security programs, offering grants to Food on the Move, the Campus Kitchens Project, and programs that help seniors apply for food security assistance.
Source: PatientEngagement HIT