Does Hunger Make You Sick?

For years many of us in the anti-hunger world have been talking about, writing about, and preaching about the dire ramifications that the ugly grip of hunger places on our citizens. And by citizens we mean the worldwide citizenry. One in eight people in the world suffers from hunger today. In the United States it is estimated that 49 million Americans live in food insecure households. In my universe of anti-hunger work, our research shows that 1 in six seniors face the threat of hunger in America.

I could go on with a grim presentation of numbers all day. The numbers of worldwide hunger are staggering. We are talking about a global hunger tragedy. A global hunger travesty is more like it. And yet, we are still having a hard time getting most policy makers to understand the urgency and subsequent dire consequences that hunger imposes on all of us. Even if we are lucky enough not to have to spend one day of our lives worried about when or worse, if, we will eat again, we are impacted by hunger. You see, hunger costs our nation, and therefore us the taxpayers, a fortune. The Center for American Progress reported that in 2010, it cost every citizen in the U.S. $542 due to the far-reaching consequences of hunger in our nation. They went on to say that at the household level that hunger bill came to at least $1,410.

There is another staggering toll that hunger takes on all of us, and that has not been examined nearly enough. And that is the healthcare costs of hunger. Our Foundation commissioned and recently released research by Dr. James Ziliak of the University of Kentucky and Dr. Craig Gundersen of the University of Illinois on The Health Consequences of Senior Hunger in the United States. The results are profound and must be taken seriously.

To begin with, those seniors who are food insecure (and there are millions of them now and the population continues to grow) have worse health outcomes than seniors who are not. Seniors age 60 and older who are food insecure (a term of art that I truly don't like) are 50 percent more likely to be diabetic. They are twice as likely to report fair or poor general health. These food insecure seniors are three times more likely to suffer from depression. They are 14 percent more likely to have high blood pressure, nearly 60 percent more likely to have congestive heart failure or experienced a heart attack, and twice as likely to report having gum disease or asthma.

These are diseases that have staggering costs associated with them. These are diseases that are exacerbated by food insecurity. These are diseases that are brought on by food insecurity. These are diseases that kill. Food insecurity and hunger are insidious diseases themselves. And now we know we have it within ourselves to reverse some of these statistics. This is just one more reason that we must commit ourselves as a nation to ending senior hunger.

Drs. Ziliak and Gundersen have examined trends in nutrition and health outcomes across food security status for the entire first decade of the 21st Century for us. Their findings are astounding. Shame on us if we do not heed the call. Our Foundation recently convened a top-level group of healthcare experts to work with us to begin a dialogue focused on finding solutions that can be replicated throughout the United States. There are many hospitals and healthcare systems throughout the U.S. that are already doing cutting-edge projects to alleviate hunger in their communities. We are looking for more partners to work alongside us in this effort. Hunger is many things; none of them positive. Most of all, it is an issue that must be tackled, and we no longer have the luxury of time. Our population is aging. And, Hunger Makes Us Sick.