Less healthy seniors are hit the hardest by rising grocery costs

Three-quarters of people over the age of 50 in the United States say rising grocery prices have affected them somewhat or a lot, and nearly a third say they are eating less healthily because of increased food costs, according to new results from the survey.

But food cost inflation has hit certain groups of older people harder, the study found – especially people who rate their physical or mental health as fair or poor, and those in lower-income households or with fewer years of formal education education.

The new findings come from a national study conducted in late July by the University of Michigan National Study on Healthy Aging, based at the UM Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.

For our most vulnerable seniors, the huge increase in food costs we are witnessing could make a bad situation worse. As the White House convenes its Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health this week, these new findings suggest a need for better support for the nutritional needs of adults over 50.

Preeti Malani, director of the study and a physician at Michigan Medicine, UM Academic Medical Center

Michigan Medicine and AARP support the National Study on Healthy Aging.

Food costs are increasing and food insecurity

More than a third of people aged 50 to 80 say rising food prices have affected them a lot, with 41% of those in their 50s and early 60s saying this, compared to 30% of those between the ages of 65 and 80.

Overall, the percentages who say this are higher among those who rate their physical health as fair or poor (46%), those who rate their mental health as fair or poor (58%), those with incomes of household under $30,000 (56%) and those with a high school education or less (48%).

The pinch of inflation has a direct impact on what foods seniors buy. More than a third (36%) of those aged 50 to 64 say their diet is less healthy because of rising costs, compared with 24% of those aged 65 to 80.

Across the entire survey population, the percentages who say they eat less healthily because of cost are higher among those who rate their mental health as fair or poor (54), those with household incomes under $30,000 (48 %), those who rate their physical health as good or poor (46%) and those who have a high school education or less (40%).

Respondents also answered questions that asked them to look back over the past 12 months and say whether two statements were often true, sometimes true, or never true about their household. A total of 4% of older adults say it is often true that they worry they will run out of food before they have money to buy more, and 15% say this is sometimes true. Meanwhile, just under 4% said it had really happened to them often, and another 12% said it had happened sometimes in the past 12 months.

These experiences of food insecurity are more common among people with good or poor physical or mental health and those with incomes below $30,000. Those who live alone are also more likely to say they ran out of food before they had the money to get more.

Those who had experienced food insecurity in the past 12 months were three times more likely to say they were now eating less healthily because of rising food costs than those who had not experienced food insecurity (66 % vs. 22% ).

Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that grocery spending rose 13% from July 2021 to July 2022 and projects a continued increase of another 10% in 2023.

The AARP Policy Institute recently released a report showing that in 2018, the majority of adults over age 50 whose income qualified them for federal food assistance through the SNAP program were not enrolled. The AARP Foundation offers help understanding and applying for SNAP benefits.

Eating habits and body weight

About a third (32%) of adults aged 50 to 64 say they eat a well-balanced diet, compared with 44% of those aged 65 to 80. Those with a college degree were much more likely to say their diet was well-balanced than those whose formal education was a high school diploma or less (48% vs. 28%). The percentage who describe their diet as well balanced is even lower among older adults who say their physical or mental health is good or poor, at 23% and 16% respectively.

The survey also asked adults about their fruit and vegetable intake. A total of 38% agreed with the statement that they do not eat enough fruit and vegetables, but the percentage who said this was much higher among those in good or poor physical health (51%) or good or poor mental health (56% ).

People who report they don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables are more likely to report that their diet has become less healthy due to rising costs than those who think they eat enough fruits and vegetables (40% against 26%).

In another question about eating habits, 29% of older adults say they eat too much sweets, but much higher percentages who say the same are seen among those with a high school education or less (34%) or incomes below $30,000 (34%), those rating their physical health as fair or poor (39%), and those rating their mental health as fair or poor (49%).

Similarly, 19% of the total survey sample agreed that they were not getting enough vitamins and minerals. The percentage is higher among those with incomes under $30,000 (25%) and those who say they are in fair or poor physical (30%) or mental (33%) health.

When asked about their weight, 39% of the entire sample said they were slightly overweight and 29% said they were overweight, while 25% said they were the right weight and 7% said they were underweight . Percentages saying they were overweight were higher among those reporting good or poor physical health (47%), good or poor mental health (37%), or incomes under $30,000 (37%). The percentage of people who say they are underweight is highest among those with incomes under $30,000, at 13%.

This is the second time the National Survey on Healthy Aging has asked questions about food-related concerns among older adults. In December 2019, 14% of people between the ages of 50 and 80 responding to the survey said their household had experienced food insecurity in the past year, and 42% of those respondents indicated that they or those they lived with , have reduced the quality or quantity of food they buy due to limited resources. The survey also looked at older people’s experiences with cooking at home and eating out.

The survey report is based on findings from a nationally representative survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago for the IHPI and administered online and by telephone in July 2022 among 2,163 adults ages 50 to 80. The sample was subsequently weighted to reflect the US population.

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