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Omega-3 Fatty Acids and the Brain

The omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA can reduce the risk for cardiovascular issues and even ease depressive symptoms, but can these healthy fats also help keep our minds sharp as we age?

In one study, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine monitored the diets of 260 healthy, cognitively normal older adults for ten years and found that participants who consumed blackened or broiled (but not fried) fish at least once a week had healthier brains over time. In fact, a comparison of MRIs revealed that these weekly fish consumers had greater gray matter volume in the areas of the brain responsible for memory (4.3%) and cognition (14%).

Previous research has shown that people who eat more seafood have a reduced risk for blood clots and white-matter abnormalities, both of which could impair brain function. Omega-3 fatty acids promote neuron growth in the brain, improve cerebral blood flow, and reduce cellular inflammation. Researchers have also observed that adults with lower blood levels of the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA in late middle age had smaller brain volumes and cognitive dysfunction as older adults compared to their peers with higher blood levels of the omega-3 fatty acids. An analysis of data from the Framingham Study cohort revealed that participants with the highest DHA levels had a 47% reduced risk for all-cause dementia and 39% lower risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

In one systemic review, researchers found that omega-6 fatty acid levels are also important for brain health. Essentially, the investigators found significant evidence that cognitive decline and dementia were more likely in those who had higher omega-6 fatty acid serum levels. This is noteworthy because fast foods are often high in omega-6 fatty acids. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 36.6% of adults in the United States consume fast food on any given day!

While some degree of cognitive decline is anticipated with age, these findings suggest that eating a healthy diet that’s high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in omega-6 fatty acids can help keep the mind sharp.

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