Omega-3 may provide a brain boost for people in midlife

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Higher omega-3 levels are linked to better brain health for people in their midlife, a study finds. Susan Brooks-Dammann/Stocksy
  • Omega-3 fatty acids have many benefits and play a role in heart health and cognitive functioning.
  • A new study demonstrates that there may be a connection between consuming omega-3 and an increase in brain functioning for people in midlife.
  • The cross-sectional study analyzed the omega-3 blood levels of people in their midlife and assessed their MRIs and thinking skills to see whether there was a difference in people with higher or lower omega-3 levels.

According to a new study published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, people who have higher omega-3 levels in their middle ages may have an edge over people who take in lower levels of omega-3.

The study was led by researchers at the University of Texas Health at San Antonio, TX, who were concerned about the lack of research on how omega-3 can impact people in their midlife.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), omega-3 fatty acids “are a group of polyunsaturated fatty acids that are important for a number of functions in the body.” In addition to playing a role in heart health and cognitive functioning, omega-3 fatty acids are also part of the cell membrane and affect cell functioning.

As Professor Stuart Phillips noted during a Live Long and Master Aging podcast, “Some fats that we ingest, and particularly the omega-3 or long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids are actually what we refer to as essential fats. We need to have them in our diet because we don’t have the ability to make them ourselves.”

Prof. Phillips is the director of the Physical Activity Center of Excellence at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.

The NIH lists three types of omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

The daily recommendation for the omega-3 fatty acid ALA for adults and people who are pregnant or breastfeeding:

  • Men 1.6 g
  • Women 1.1 g
  • Pregnant teens and women 1.4 g
  • Breastfeeding teens and women 1.3 g

This recommendation is only for ALA as experts have not yet established recommendations for the other two fatty acids.

While people can take omega-3 supplements, it is also in a number of foods. Some good sources of omega-3 include fish (such as salmon and tuna) and nuts and seeds (chia seeds and flax seeds).

The researchers studied 2,183 men and women with an average age of 46. They excluded people who had dementia or a history of having a stroke from their participant pool.

Using blood samples, the researchers analyzed the fatty acid composition of each participant. The participants also consented to having their brains scanned using MRI technology.

The researchers were interested in the volumes of gray and white matter present in the brain, particularly in the hippocampus. The hippocampus plays a role in learning and memory, and a reduction in the volume can point to possible dementia.

The participants also underwent a neurological assessment. The tests measured the participants’ abstract thinking, processing speed, executive function, and delayed episodic memory.

The researchers placed approximately 25% of the participants in the low group where the participants had omega-3 fatty acids blood levels falling under 4%. This group had an average count of 3.4%.

The rest of the participants were put into the high group; their average omega-3 level was 5.2%.

Comparing the blood samples, MRI results, and neurological assessments, the study authors determined that higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids correlate to a higher hippocampal volume and better abstract reasoning.

Researchers observed that the people in the high group also had higher gray matter volumes, better reading scores, and slightly higher logical reasoning scores.

In contrast, the people in the low group tended to be less likely to have a college degree and more likely to be smokers and have diabetes compared to the higher group.

“This exploratory study suggests that higher [omega-3 blood levels] are associated with larger hippocampal volumes and better performance in abstract reasoning, even in cognitively healthy middle-aged adults from the community, suggesting a possible role in improving cognitive resilience,” write the authors.

“These results need to be confirmed with additional research, but it’s exciting that omega-3 levels could play a role in improving cognitive resilience, even in middle-aged people,” said study author Prof. Claudia L. Satizabal, Ph.D.

Prof. Satizabal is an assistant professor at the Department of Population Health Sciences at UT Health San Antonio, TX.

The authors noted that other researchers have conducted similar studies in older populations but believe that it is necessary to see what impacts omega-3 supplements have on people in their midlife because they start experiencing cognitive decline.

According to the authors, “One of the main challenges for some of these studies may be that dietary interventions are carried out perhaps too late for significant improvements in symptomatic participants, as cognitive changes may be well established over the previous 15 to 20 years.”

“Improving our diet is one way to promote our brain health. If people could improve their cognitive resilience and potentially ward off dementia with some simple changes to their diet, that could have a large impact on public health.”

– Prof. Satizabal

Dr. Natalie King, a neuroscientist and founder of Florae Beauty, not involved in the study, spoke with Medical News Today and discussed the importance of diets on brain health.

“Everything we do and consume affects our brain, and there have been numerous studies, including the one shared, that highlight the effects of food and drink on overall brain health and function,” said Dr. King.

“Omega-3 fatty acids, in particular, have been found to be beneficial when it comes to improving mental function as well as supporting an overall wellness plan when considering disease pathologies like mood disorders and others affecting learning and memory,” Dr. King continued.

Dr. King noted that while this area needs more research, “moderation of omega-3s is likely key and simultaneous careful temperance with other molecules (i.e., saturated fats and highly-processed foods) is necessary to achieve the net positive effects one is going for.”

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/omega-3-may-boost-brain-health-for-people-in-midlife-study