According to a University of Michigan study, more than 20 percent of older adults in the United States will experience food insufficiency at some point in their 60s and 60s.
The study, led by UM researcher Helen Levy, looked at the likelihood that older people would experience food insufficiency or not have enough to eat at any given time over a long period of time – around 20 years. She found that the likelihood of food insufficiency over a longer period was about three times higher – 22% versus 8% – than at any time. The study was published in the journal Applied Economic Perspective Policy.
The extent of food-related difficulties in the elderly in any given year is well documented. In 2019, 2.8% of Americans age 60 and older reported suffering from food insufficiency. In some respects, this is a relatively small fraction. But that still means that more than 2 million older people didn’t have enough food, and the prevalence of difficulties over a longer period will almost certainly be greater.
Helen Levy, Research Professor, Survey Research Center, UM Institute for Social Research
To date, there is no research on the number of older adults with food insufficiency over a long period of time, said Levy, also a research professor at the Ford School of Public Policy and the School of Public Health. To address this issue, Levy examined a 20-year period in the life of an older adult, using data from the Health and Retirement Study, a longitudinal panel study of older Americans conducted by the Survey ISR Research Center with funding from the National Institute on Aging and Social Security Administration.
The Health and Retirement Study measures dietary insufficiency with a yes or no question. New respondents are asked: “During the past two years, have you always had enough money to buy the food you need?” Respondents who have already been included in a survey wave are asked the same question covering the time since the previous wave. For this study, Levy focused on individuals born between 1936 and 1953.
The rate of food inadequacy is particularly high for certain subgroups over the 20-year window of 60s and 70s. Nearly 40% of those without a high school diploma, 37.5% of non-Hispanic black respondents, and nearly 44% of those with poor baseline health will experience food insufficiency during this time.
But even those with low rates of food insufficiency at baseline — the year they first responded to the panel survey — may have higher rates of food insufficiency over the longer term, said Levy. The base rate of food insufficiency for university graduates is 3.9%, for example, but 13.2% of this group will experience insufficiency during the 20-year window. Only 3.9% of people in excellent health at the start experience food insufficiency, but 17% will suffer from it in the longer term.
“These results suggest that dietary insufficiency is not concentrated in a small group of persistently disadvantaged older adults, but rather is a surprisingly common feature of later life, affecting 1 in 5 Americans at some point in their 60s and 60s,” Levy said.
Levy also found that food insufficiency is a transient experience for many older people. About half of those who report food insufficiency at some point over an 8-year period report it only once, while about a fifth of those with food insufficiency suffer more than half the time.
While previous research shows that income is a major predictor of food-related difficulties, most seniors who experience food difficulties are not poor, Levy said.
“Short and long periods of difficulty may arise for different reasons,” she said. “For example, if you can’t work enough hours and your income drops, you might have a brief period of food insufficiency. But if the problem is a chronic condition, they may face ongoing difficulties, even with benefits such as SSI or SNAP.”
Levy said future research should use longitudinal data to explore the dynamics of eating difficulties and whether they have health consequences for older adults.
Levy, H., (2022) The long-term prevalence of dietary insufficiency in older Americans. Applied Economic Perspective Policy. doi.org/10.1002/aepp.13229.