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A study shows food insecurity for senior citizens is a challenge that's getting a little bit better, but inadequate nutrition poses real dangers for the elderly.

SALT LAKE CITY — A new report says a significant number of older Americans are at risk of hunger and malnourishment. And while that number dipped for the first time since the recession, the number of seniors in the category considered at the most severe risk of not having adequate nutritious food, did not drop.

American seniors with food challenges were categorized by severity. Those facing "threat of hunger" are considered marginally food insecure, a number that dropped a statistically significant 1 percentage point between 2014 and 2015. But it's still roughly 9.8 million seniors 60 and older, or 14.7 percent of that age demographic, according to the report prepared for the nonprofits Feeding America and the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger. The report was written by James P. Ziliak, director of the Center for Poverty at the University of Kentucky, and Craig Gundersen, professor of agricultural strategy at the University of Illinois.

The next group were "food insecure" which means at actual risk of hunger. The most severe group, those facing hunger, did not decrease at all. They were and still are hungry.

Ziliak told The Washington Post there's no real drop in the number of older Americans who are vulnerable to hunger: "This rate has been stubbornly stuck," he said. "Millions of seniors don't know where their meals are coming from."

The study authors credit "an improving economy and financial markets" for the small decrease, but they wrote that "millions of seniors in the United States are going without enough food due to economic constraints." And they note that programs designed to help people get adequate food are not reaching all the senior citizens who need them.

While 80 percent overall of low-income households that qualify are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, only 40 percent of eligible low-income senior citizens are enrolled. Many older Americans don't know about the program, formerly called food stamps, according to surveys. The two researchers note as well that hunger carries a stigma among senior citizens.

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There are other barriers to the elderly having sufficient food and nutrition. Even with government assistance, seniors have to be able to get to the store to use the food stamps. And they need to be able to prepare the items they buy. When people are physically frail or have cognitive impairment, adequate nutrition becomes more complicated, Gundersen told the Deseret News.

Ziliak noted that federal guidelines restrict what can be purchased with the food assistance program: raw vegetables, fruits, uncooked meats, cereals and dairy products are eligible. Some other foods — and certainly hot prepared meals — are not.

Hunger and health

Many seniors are frail and some lack good cognition, so they can't or don't take adequate care of themselves, said Gundersen. In addition, when people get older, they may not feel hungry or may have their hunger satisfied more quickly, so they don't get adequate nutrition.

Depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, gum disease, psoriasis and asthma have all been linked to poor nutrition, according to an earlier report on the health effects of hunger, written by the same authors of the newest report.

"Compared to food secure seniors, food insecure seniors are 53 percent more likely to report a heart attack, 52 percent more likely to develop asthma and 40 percent more likely to report an experience of congestive heart failure," they wrote. "In addition, food insecure seniors are 22 percent more likely to experience limitations in their Activities of Daily Living, which are those fundamental activities, such as eating, dressing and bathing, that individuals typically can perform independently. These high rates probably reflect, in part, the challenges these seniors face in accessing enough food."

Nutrition programs help vulnerable older people. For instance, Salt Lake County Aging Services provides Meals on Wheels to homebound elderly people who qualify, as well as providing food for area senior centers, said Arlene Zortman, independent aging assistant program manager for Salt Lake Aging Services.

Seniors usually don't get what they need entirely unless they can cook for themselves, "and they can't, which is why they have Meals on Wheels." Many seniors eat inadequate and unhealthy diets made up of whatever's on hand and is easy.

"Unfortunately, what we see a lot is seniors eating junk food. Our program provides them with one nutritious meal a day," she said, adding the meal content is guided by the Older Americans Act, which funds the program and sets its nutrition standards. Seniors are provided one-third of their daily nutritional need, based on a 70-year-old who is sedentary.

"But one-third is just one-third," she said. They don't get all the fruits and vegetables they need, the protein and the dietary fiber that are critical to body functions.

Filling a gap

Gundersen said the U.S. Department of Agriculture annually reports on food insecurity for different groups, but it doesn't include seniors. He and Ziliak wrote the annual senior hunger report because they were asked by the two nonprofit food organizations to fill in that gap. Their report is the only national and state level presentation on seniors and food insecurity.

The researchers measured hunger using data from a U.S. Census Bureau survey that asks older people to respond to statements about food and hunger. They include whether cost of food is challenging for individuals and whether the individuals have been hungry in the past year or missed meals because they couldn't afford food.

The report looked at hunger in individual states, noting while the overall number of older people who aren't sure if they'll get enough to eat dropped, some states saw increases, primarily in the South and in New Mexico, New York and Indiana. The state with the lowest food insecurity is North Dakota, at just under 3 percent. In Utah, 13.1 percent of seniors are food insecure.

People with disabilities faced the greater likelihood of being food insecure, too, Gundersen said, and so do seniors who are racial or ethnic minorities and low-income seniors. Gundersen said that "perhaps surprisingly, younger seniors (60-69) are at greater risk of food insecurity than older seniors (over 80). Seniors who are single or divorced are more at risk than those who are married or widowed.

And in households where grandparents raise their grandchildren, the youngsters are less food insecure than others, but their grandparents are more food insecure.

Needed changes

It's critical to see that qualified seniors get into the government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Gundersen said.

And it's also critical that people pay attention to the issue and recognize that some older people are going hungry and then help them.

Programs are doing important work to help seniors who need food, including food banks, local Meals on Wheels, Feed America and others. But a lot of seniors who don't have good functional social support are more likely to be food insecure and need someone to care for them.

Allowing government food program purchases to be brought to a senior citizen at home would help some, Gundersen said.

"Anything that can be done to make it easier for them," he said. "Some states have made the application process easier and also make seniors recertify less often than other groups (that use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). If someone is 75 years old, it's unlikely they've had a positive economic change in the past year that would disqualify them."

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco