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Hanging out at fast food joints is GOOD for elderly people’s brains, study finds

Socializing at fast food joints is actually beneficial for elderly people’s brains, a new study suggests.

Previous research has shown that social interaction is key to protecting the cognitive development and function of seniors.

As it turns out, meeting up at a McDonald’s or a Burger King serves as a community space in which older people can interact, which helps slow down the mental decline associated with dementia and other age-related brain diseases.

Participants living in areas with retail food establishments had higher cognitive scores than those residing in neighborhoods with few locations.

However, the team, from the University of Michigan, warns that actually eating fast food, such as a cheeseburger and fries will only speed up cognitive decline.

‘Traditionally, fast food has a negative relationship with cognition – we know that diets high in saturated fat cholesterol are associated with increased risk of cognitive decline,’ said lead author Dr Jessica Finlay, a research fellow at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, in a press release.

Indeed, several studies have linked saturated fat to a number of illnesses, including cognitive decline.

Emerging research has even shown that vegetable oil, used to cook French fries, is more likely than others to cause plaque build-up in the brain, a known precursor to serious neurodegenerative diseases. 

‘[Fast food] has been criticized in public health literature because it can offer unhealthy food choices, ‘ Finlay said.

‘But, as a geographer, I’m interested in the places themselves and what those spaces mean for the everyday lives of older adults.’

For the study, published in the journal Health and Place, the team interviewed 125 adults between ages 55 and 92 in the Minneapolis metro area.

Researchers also accompanied the participants on visits to their local eateries.

They found that these locations represented familiarity and comfort to the older adults and where they feel they could socialize with family, friends, staff, and customers.

One interviewee, 72-year-old Denise, had suffered a stroke in the past and fast food joints were physically and economically accessible.

‘Denise explained that “it was an expensive month” with a wedding and two unexpected funerals, and these events ‘ate up [her] budget,’ the researchers wrote.  

‘Though she could not afford restaurant meals regularly, Denise still enjoyed inexpensive coffee with her girlfriends as a valued opportunity to socialize.’ 

Another interviewee, 75-year-old Martha, who lives alone, saw local eateries as ‘easy, low-pressure ways to interact with friends and make new social connections.’

Next, the team used data from the Reasons for Geographic And Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) study and compared participants’ geographic location to the cognitive scores. 

Participants living in areas with sparse fast food joints had cognitive scores that were lower – about 0.1 points – than residents living in the highest density environments.  

Senior author Dr Philippa Clarke says she’s worried the coronavirus impact will affect the ability of older adults to socialize at their local eateries. 

‘These times, more than ever, highlight the vulnerability of older adults to their neighborhood context,’ said Clarke, a professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health.

‘As these “third places” close for business during the pandemic, the opportunities for social interaction for older adults are constrained. 

‘This research highlights the importance of informal places for social interaction for maintaining cognitive health with aging, and raises important questions about the impact of their closure for the future rates of dementia in older Americans.’

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