Cognitive health is an everyday worry for many older people, but a new study has found a unique way involving fast-food restaurants to help keep mental health in check. Normally, fast food is not associated with good health, but places such as neighborhood cafes have been found to provide cognitive benefits to older adults.
The study from the University of Michigan has found that when older adults in their golden years visit eateries such as fast-food restaurants and coffee shops, they could be protecting their cognitive health similar to the levels offered by marriage.
The study published in the journal Health and Place involved 125 participants aged 55 to 92 in the Minneapolis metro area. Through the analysis, lead author Jessica Finlay and colleagues found that older adults valued these types of eateries as places of familiarity and comfort. They thought of them as places that were physically and economically accessible, and places to socialize with family, friends, staff, and customers.
“Traditionally, fast food has had a negative relationship with cognition—we know that diets high in saturated fat cholesterol are associated with increased risk of cognitive decline,” said Finlay, a research fellow at the U-M Institute for Social Research’s Survey Research Center. “It has been criticized in public health literature because it can offer unhealthy food choices. But as a geographer, I’m interested in the places themselves and what those spaces mean for the everyday lives of older adults.”
Finlay’s research focuses on how neighborhood eateries may help buffer against the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. She hypothesized that regular socialization and leisure activities held in these fast food establishments might be linked to better overall cognitive health.
Results on a National Scale
Finlay’s colleague Michael Esposito tested this idea in a national cohort to determine the effectiveness of social interaction on cognitive function. The results were analyzed from the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke—REGARDS—study, which collects longitudinal information by mail and telephone from more than 30,000 aging Black and white individuals.
“My side of the project was translating what Jessica found in her qualitative results over to the national scale, blowing it up to see if some of those associations she inferred from her study in Minnesota held for the nation at large—and they did,” said Esposito, a research fellow at ISR’s Survey Research Center.
This new research offers a fresh perspective on prevention measures for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. It is essential to realize that these neighborhood places are more than just a place to grab a quick meal for older people. They are an opportunity for these people to get social interaction, therefore helping to maintain mental health and ward off age-related cognitive decline.