Low-Income Americans Over 50 Face Unique Health and Nutrition Hurdles, Compared to Others Their Age

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WASHINGTON — While aging poses new challenges, as well as changing perceptions and behaviors around food and health, a report by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation has found that low-income Americans age 50 and older confront additional hurdles and disparities compared with others in their age group.

The findings are derived from a new IFIC Foundation survey, in collaboration with AARP Foundation, of more than 1,000 Americans age 50 and older with annual household incomes under $35,000. The research explores how they think about their health and nutrition, in addition to unique barriers they face in making positive changes.

“As Americans get older, attitudes and behaviors regarding their health change significantly,” said Alexandra Lewin-Zwerdling, Vice President of Research and Partnerships at the IFIC Foundation. “But even among Americans who are 50 and older, the changes and effects are not experienced uniformly across the income spectrum. It’s important to understand differences in attitudes and actions, which will help address the impact of income on the health and nutrition of this growing age group.”

Health Disparities and Changing Habits

According to the findings, income status of Americans over 50 is directly associated with the perception of one’s own health. In addition, compared with other older Americans, indicators of healthy eating and recommended amounts of physical activity may be lagging among those who are low-income.

Low-income Americans over 50 report an average health score (on a scale of 1 to 10) that is one point lower than the general population: 6.4 vs. 7.4. They are also much less likely to rate their health as “excellent” (38 percent vs. 57 percent of the broader 50+ age group).

There is also a significant gap in healthy eating behaviors: 31 percent of low-income Americans over 50 say their eating habits have improved from 20 years ago, compared to 39 percent of the broader 50+ age group. And lower earners are also less physically active: Only 19 percent of low-income respondents rated their physical activity level as high, compared to 29 percent of all adults over 50.

Healthy Eating and Perceived Needs

Low-income Americans over 50 are interested in attaining similar health outcomes compared to the general population, with cardiovascular health and brain function topping the list. But more low-income Americans over 50 (73 percent) expressed interest in emotional/mental health compared to those with higher incomes (64 percent). Energy, muscle health and mobility, and maintaining a healthy appetite also were more likely to have an impact on the diets of low-income Americans over 50.

Low-income respondents knew less about how to translate their diets into their desired health outcomes. For instance, more than one-third (36 percent) of low-income Americans over 50 cannot name a specific food or nutrient to avoid or limit to help with their most important health concern, compared to one-quarter (24 percent) of those with higher incomes. And a little over one-quarter of lower-income respondents (28 percent) cannot name a food or nutrient they would seek out to help with their most important health concern, compared to only 1 in 5 (19 percent) with higher incomes.

Lower income status also seems to present other impediments to healthy eating. Half (50 percent) of low-income respondents say it is difficult for them to eat a healthy diet, compared to only 41 percent with higher incomes. Only about 1 in 5 (21 percent) low-income Americans over 50 say it is easy. In addition, low-income Americans over 50 were more likely to say that cost (57 percent vs. 44 percent), accessibility (16 percent vs. 10 percent), physical ability (16 percent vs. 9 percent) and knowledge (12 percent vs. 8 percent) make it harder to eat healthy.

Purchasing Decisions

As one might expect, lower incomes don’t correlate just with respondents’ abilities to eat healthy; they also influence food-purchasing decisions. Price is cited as a major factor in purchasing decisions by 85 percent (virtually tied with taste, at 86 percent) of low-income Americans over 50, but by only 74 percent of the broader population. And 61 percent of lower earners said price has more impact on their purchasing decisions now compared to 20 years ago (vs. 43 percent of the general population).

Availability (71 percent) and familiarity (68 percent) with foods are also significant factors, edging out the influence of healthfulness and far surpassing the impact of brand name on purchasing.

And among low-income older Americans, two-thirds (67 percent) of those age 70 and older cite healthfulness as a major impact on food purchases, compared to 57 percent of those in their 50s.

Motivational Messages

When it comes to messages that motivate higher-income Americans over 50 to eat healthier, the group in general favors emotional appeals about the impact that a balanced diet can have on quality of life. While those with lower incomes also appreciate such messages, their top choice is a fact-based message that explains how that balanced diet translates to a reduced risk of heart disease (65 percent for the fact-based message vs. 55 percent for the quality-of-life message).

Interestingly, an “accessibility” message that emphasizes the ease and affordability of accomplishing healthy eating is the least motivating for low-income Americans over age 50 (44 percent).


The findings were derived from an online survey of 1,032 Americans age 50 and older with annual household incomes under $35,000, conducted between Jan. 30 and Feb. 9, 2018. The results were weighted (by age, education, gender, race/ethnicity and region) to ensure that they are reflective of the older American population, as seen in the Census Bureau’s 2017 Current Population Survey. The survey was conducted by Greenwald & Associates using ResearchNow’s consumer panel.

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See the full report (PDF, 4.4MB)

The mission of International Food Information Council Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is to effectively communicate science-based information on health, food safety and nutrition for the public good. The IFIC Foundation is supported primarily by the broad-based food, beverage and agricultural industries. Visit https://staging.foodinsight.org.

AARP Foundation works to end senior poverty by helping vulnerable older adults build economic opportunity and social connectedness. As AARP’s charitable affiliate, we serve AARP members and nonmembers alike. Bolstered by vigorous legal advocacy, we spark bold, innovative solutions that foster resilience, strengthen communities and restore hope. To learn more, visit aarpfoundation.org.