‘Food swamps’ may be sending older adults to an early grave

DALLAS — It’s no secret that poor access to healthy food can lead to people making unhealthy dieting choices. With that in mind, a new study finds adults over 50 who live in so-called “food swamps” are more likely to suffer a life-threatening stroke. Simply put, areas where fast food chains and convenience stores selling unhealthy snacks are everywhere could be sending many older adults to an early grave.

“Despite major advances in stroke care, stroke continues to be a significant problem, and some people will remain at risk despite optimal medical treatment,” says Dixon Yang, M.D., lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, in a media release. “An unhealthy diet negatively impacts blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol levels that increases the risk of stroke. Independent of one’s own demographics or socioeconomic status, living in a neighborhood with an abundance of poor food choices may be an important factor to consider for many people.”

The term “food swamp” came about over a decade ago to describe communities where fast food chains and convenience stores are all around, swamping neighborhoods with unhealthy food options rather than healthy ones. More often than not, these communities are also food deserts, meaning that grocery stores are harder to find, adding even more barriers to buying fresh produce and other healthy meals.

So far, there are few studies that look at the relationship between food swamps and stroke risk. In this study, a team of researchers reviewed data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), which is an ongoing study conducted at the University of Michigan which recruits participants from across the United States. The goal is to examine challenges and opportunities related to aging and retirement. They then cross-referenced the data with food environment information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to generate a retail food environment index (RFEI) in order to find the ratio of fast-food restaurants and convenience stores to the number of retail nutritious food options in U.S. neighborhoods.

7 in 10 older adults live near a food swamp

Their data included 17,875 adults with an age of 64. The group was weighted appropriately to represent the greater U.S. population of over 84 million older adults that are stroke-free. They created two categories based on the RFEI: a ratio under 5 and a ratio of 5 or more. A higher RFEI number means that a person lives in an area with fewer healthy food options — like a food swamp.

Results show that the percentage of people living in areas with an RFEI below 5 was 28 percent, while the percentage of those living in areas with an RFEI of 5 or higher was 72 percent. Those in the 5 or higher group were 13 percent more likely to suffer a stroke compared to those in the other group.

“Our research highlights the potential importance of an area’s retail food options as a structural factor affecting stroke, especially since most participants resided in areas with 6 times the amount of relative unhealthy to healthy food choices,” Yang says.

Although finding detailed information on this topic isn’t that easy, this study speaks to the need of turning public attention to how food deserts and swamps affect the health and wellness of those living and growing up in the affected communities.

“At this early stage of our research, it’s important to raise awareness that a person’s neighborhood and food environment are potentially important factors affecting their health, especially among people who may have difficulty in reaching optimal cardiovascular health targets. In the future, it may help to focus on community-based interventions or dietary guidance to improve cardiovascular health, thereby, hopefully reducing the risk of stroke,” Yang concludes.

The team is presenting their research at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference 2023.

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About the Author

Shyla Cadogan, RD

Shyla Cadogan is a DMV-Based acute care Registered Dietitian. She holds specialized interests in integrative nutrition and communicating nutrition concepts in a nuanced, approachable way.

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