According to a study conducted by faculty at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in San Antonio and other investigators from the Framingham Heart Study which was recently published in Neurology® Eating cold-water fish like mackerel, tuna, herring, sardines, cod, and tuna along with other sources of omega-3 fatty acids can help maintain brain health and improve cognition in middle age.
“Studies have examined this association in older populations. The new contribution here is that even at a younger age, if you have a diet that includes omega-3 fatty acids, you are already protecting your brain for most of the indicators of brain aging that we see in middle age” , said Claudia. Satizabal, Ph.D., assistant professor of population health sciences in the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases at UT Health San Antonio. Satizabal, who is also the lead author of the study.
This study of 2,183 participants without dementia or stroke with an average age of 46, examined the relationship between omega-3 fatty acid concentrations in red blood cells with MRI and cognitive markers of brain aging, as well as the effects of omega-3 concentrations in red blood in people with the AP0E4 genetic variation linked to a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Gas chromatography techniques were used to measure DHA and EPA concentrations in red blood cells, and the Omega-3 Index was calculated as DHA plus EPA.
The researchers found that a higher omega-3 index was associated with larger hippocampus volumes, this brain structure playing a major role in memory and learning. Consuming more omega-3s was associated with better abstract reasoning (the ability to understand complex concepts using logical thinking). Additionally, carriers of the AP0E4 gene variant with a higher omega-3 index had fewer small vessel diseases, which is important because this gene is associated with cardiovascular disease and vascular dementia.
“Omega-3 fatty acids such as EPA and DHA are key micronutrients that enhance and protect the brain,” said study co-author Debora Melo van Lent, Ph.D., postdoctoral researcher at the Biggs Institute. “Our study is one of the first to observe this effect in a younger population. Further studies in this age group are needed.
“We saw the worst results in people who had the lowest omega-3 intake,” Satizabal said. “So that’s something interesting. Although the more omega-3s the more benefits for the brain, you just have to eat them to see the benefits.
Although the researchers were unable to determine how DHA and EPA protect the brain, they hypothesized that because these fatty acids are needed in the membrane of neurons when replaced by other types of fatty acids, neurons become unstable and may have something to do with the protective anti-inflammatory properties of DHA and EPA.
“It’s complex. We don’t have it all figured out yet, but we’re showing that somehow if you increase your omega-3 intake, even a little bit, you’re protecting your brain,” Satizabal said.
“It’s genetic, so you can’t change it,” Melo van Lent said, referring to the vulnerability of the high-risk AP0E4 carrier group. “So if there’s a modifiable risk factor that can outweigh the genetic predisposition, that’s a big win.”
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