Signing up for “food stamps” might help lower-income seniors preserve their mental capabilities, a new U.S. study suggests.

Researchers found that eligible older adults who used the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — commonly called food stamps — had two fewer years of mental decline over a 10-year period than those who could have registered for the program but did not.

“Less than half of the older adults who are eligible for SNAP actually participate,” said senior study author Adina Zeki Al Hazzouri, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, in New York City.

“With the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias expected to increase, this low participation is a huge, missed opportunity for dementia prevention,” Zeki Al Hazzouri added in a school news release.

The study included more than 3,500 people, average age 66. All met the income requirements for SNAP benefits, but only 559 used the program, the researchers said.

The study participants had memory function tests every two years for 20 years. These involved recalling a list of words and answering questions about what they could remember from their everyday lives.

SNAP users had lower income and a greater number of chronic conditions at the beginning of the study than those who opted not to participate in the program, according to the report.

After adjusting for differences between the two groups, the investigators found that SNAP users had worse memory scores at the start of the study but slower rates of memory decline compared to non-users during the study years.

“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,” said study co-author Peiyi Lu, a postdoctoral research scientist at the Mailman School of Public 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,” Lu said.

Zeki Al Hazzouri suggested that ways to increase participation in the program could include growing outreach, reducing stigma and simplifying the application process.

The findings were published online Nov. 9 in Neurology.

More information

The U.S. National Council on Aging has more on food insecurity in older adults.

SOURCE: Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, news release, Nov. 9, 2022