(CN) – The nation’s largest food assistance program does more than help low-income families – it also supports health by preventing premature death among adults, according to a study released Monday.
More than 40 million Americans participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously referred to as food stamps, as a way to reduce food insecurity. The study, published in the journal Health Affairs, found that the program helps reduce the risk of premature mortality in adults as well.
“A major challenge in demonstrating the positive health impact of SNAP is that the same criteria that make a household eligible for participation – such as low income – are associated with poor health outcomes on average,” said study author Colleen Heflin, professor of public administration and international affairs at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School.
“By looking at the incidence of premature death, we are able to help fill an important gap in the scientific literature to help policy makers weigh the benefits and costs of food nutrition programs on population health and associated impacts,” she said.
Researchers examined restricted-access data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey from 1997-2009. What they discovered was a reduction in the risk of premature death from all causes by 1-2 percentage points.
The study is also the first of its kind to show a link between participation in SNAP and a decrease in “deaths of despair,” deaths brought on by suicide, opioid addiction or alcohol poisoning. Among adults aged 40-64, these types of deaths were reduced by .8%.
The program has come under fire by the Trump administration lately. A proposed rule change would eliminate benefits for over 3 million people, including free school lunches for nearly a million children. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the move would save about $2.5 billion a year.
The study’s authors say the change could negatively affect the health of those participating in the program.
“Our results further demonstrate the benefits of SNAP for the American people, and policies to restrict access to the program could have serious health consequences from higher food insecurity to premature death,” said study co-author James Ziliak of the University of Kentucky.