In 2012, 1.1 million (9.1 percent) U.S. senior citizens living independently were considered food insecure. This number is expected to increase by 50 percent in 2025 as the U.S. population continues to age. Data reported by American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) described increases in the number of older adults experiencing food insecurity since 2007. It was shown that food insecurity rose by 25 percent among individuals aged 60 and older between 2007-2009. According to AARP, individuals were more likely to report food insecurity if they were non-white, Hispanic, renters, widowed, divorced or separated, high school dropouts, unemployed and with a disability, had an income below the federal poverty line, and those with grandchildren living in the household.
Defined as “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways”, food insecurity is directly related to a household’s ability to acquire the foods that are necessary for daily living. Among vulnerable and dependent populations such as the elderly, food insecurity can be particularly pronounced.
Individuals who are considered food insecure are at risk for experiencing poor health due to malnutrition. Health risks of particular relevance to the elderly include impaired cognition, diminished immune function, and the potential decrease in life expectancy. In addition to physical health concerns, mental health risks may also accompany malnutrition including feelings of powerlessness and isolation as well as stress and anxiety. Among the elderly, feelings of anxiety related to food insecurity are more pronounced than among young people. For the elderly living with chronic diseases (a number that has grown exponentially worldwide) such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, having access to a nutritious diet is a key factor in their ability to manage their condition.
While food insecurity is closely tied to having the financial resources necessary to purchase food, among the elderly, additional barriers may impact their access. In a series of interviews conducted with 46 elderly households in New York state, additional barriers to food access that participants reported were: transportation limitations, mobility limitations, lack of motivation/ability to prepare meals, financial compromises (purchasing food vs. other expenses), and food compromises (quality vs. quantity).
From a global perspective, ensuring that the aging population has adequate access to the resources necessary for healthy living (including safe, nutritious, and affordable food options) should be a priority. Advocating for such resources requires concerted efforts locally, regionally, and nationally. This is particularly important as our global society continues to confront multidimensional problems that threaten environmental, economic, and social stability.
Diana Kingsbury is a PhD student and graduate assistant in prevention science at Kent State University College of Public Health.