Omega-3 and brain health – more evidence

As baby boomers age, interest in brain and cognitive health is exploding.  There isn’t much to recommend cognitive decline; it’s not a disease that’s well-managed by prescription drugs.  The possibility of boosting brain function with nutrition is very attractive.   It would be easy to just take some supplements.  But is maintenance of brain health as easy as taking supplements?

Not quite.  Exercise turns out to have significant benefits for cognitive function, in aging and in response to brain injury.  Exercise is essential for weight control, too, so maintaining mental capacities as we age goes hand in hand with weight control, which has benefits for most other chronic diseases.  Unfortunately, you can’t take an exercise pill.

The problem with nutrition research on brain health is that studies frequently assess intake of just one nutrient.  Why?  It’s easy and non-invasive.  Who is going to volunteer for a study that asks subjects to take supplements, if some of the subjects might get a placebo, or worse, a substance that is detrimental?  When it comes to brain health, no one will want to risk an adverse effect.

Nevertheless we have come clues, and a new report on omega-3 shows affirms the existing evidence that links intake of omega-3 to better brain function.  This study actually looked at blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA.  Measuring actual blood levels is a much better way to check on omega-3 status than asking people what they eat.

The study subjects were over 1500 older people, who did not have known dementia.  They had brain scans and blood tests and completed numerous cognitive and memory tests.  Results: the people with the lowest levels of omega-3 in their blood had the lowest brain volumes and lowest scores on cognitive function tests.

Given that omega-3 intake is especially low in the United States, this is a significant finding.  Omega-3 intake is easily improved with 2 servings of high fat fish, like salmon or sardines, per week, or by taking modest amounts of omega-3 supplements.  But adding omega-3 supplements to a junky diet isn’t likely to be helpful.  Brain health isn’t dependent on one nutrient; the whole lifestyle is important.

For more information on omega-3, check out my interview with Gretchen Vannice, MS RD, author of the Omega-3 Handbook.

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