Omega-3s may help improve midlife cognition

New research suggests that consumption of omega-3 fatty acids may help improve the brain structure and and cognition of middle-aged patients.

The study was published in the journal, Neurology, and led by Claudia Satizabal, PhD, assistant professor of population health sciences at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Previous research has suggested that consumption of omega-3 fatty acids can help cognition in older populations, however its effects on the brains of younger patients are lesser known. For this investigation, Satizabal and her colleagues set out to discover the impacts of omega-3 fatty acids on the cognition of people in their 40s and 50s.

Over 2,000 dementia, stroke-free participants with an average age of 46 were included in the study. Researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine the participants’ red blood cell omega-3 fatty acid concentrations as well as cognitive markers of aging. In addition, researchers identified participants who carried the genetic variation, APOE4, which is associated with a higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease and cardiovascular disease.

Using omega-3 fatty acid concentrations from the participants’ red blood cells, researchers measured docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) as well as eicosatetraenoic acid (EPA) with a technique known as gas chromatography. According to researchers, DHA and EPA are key micronutrients for helping protect the brain. To calculate the omega-3 index, levels of DHA and EPA were added together.

The study found an association between high omega-3 indexes and larger hippocampal volumes. According to researchers, the hippocampus is a structure that contributes to learning and memory. In addition, the results indicated that those who consumed higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids were better at abstract reasoning. Among APOE4 carriers, those with a higher omega-3 index had less cases of small-vessel disease, which commonly leads to cognitive impairment. In addition, when researchers divided participants into groups based on their omega-3 indexes, they found the worst health outcomes in those with the lowest consumption of omega-3 fatty acids.

Although researchers aren’t sure of the precise reasons why omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA and EPA protect the brain, they said their study demonstrates that there is a relationship between cognition and consumption of omega-3 fatty acids.

“It’s complex. We don’t understand everything yet, but we show that, somehow, if you increase your consumption of omega-3s even by a little bit, you are protecting your brain,” Satizabal said in a statement.