Something Fishy for Your Brain

Omega 3 fatty acids may be linked to memory and brain health in older adults

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) If you're not a big fish eater, you may be missing out — or at least your brain might be missing out on a helpful nutrient found in fish oil.

A recent study found that a higher level of a omega-3 fatty acids in older women was linked to larger brains, and potentially better brain health.

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids needed by the body for various functions, but not produced by the body. They are thought to help reduce inflammation in the body and are found in various foods, especially fish oil and flax.

"Ask your doctor about getting omega-3 fatty acids from your diet."

This study, led by James V. Pottala, PhD, of the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of South Dakota's Sanford School of Medicine, looked at whether women's levels of omega-3 fatty acids were related to their brain health years later.

The researchers followed 1,111 women, aged 65 to 80 and without symptoms of dementia, for eight years.

At the start of the study, blood samples taken from the women were analyzed for the percentage of omega-3 fatty acids found in them. Then, at the end of the study, the women underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to assess their brain volume.

The researchers adjusted their analysis to account for differences among the women in terms of taking hormone therapy, their demographics, their head space volume and their risk factors for heart disease.

The authors found that women with a higher-than-average percentage of omega-3 fatty acids had slightly larger brain volume — about 2.1 cm3.

Most of the link between brain volume and the fatty acids seemed associated with the DHA type of omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish oil and algae oil.

The researchers also found a slightly larger volume in the participants' hippocampus if they had higher-than-average blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids. The hippocampus is a small part of the brain that helps with short-term and long-term memory.

"A higher omega-3 index was correlated with larger total normal brain volume and hippocampal volume in postmenopausal women measured 8 years later," the researchers concluded.

They noted that brains will gradually deteriorate naturally as a result of the aging process but that having lower amounts of omega-3 fatty acids may lead the hippocampus to deteriorate sooner.

"This study thus adds to the growing literature suggesting that higher omega-3 FA tissue levels, which can be achieved by dietary changes, may hold promise for delaying cognitive aging and/or dementia," they wrote.

"Benefits of omega 3 fatty acids on cardiovascular health are well described and there are increasing associations between cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer's disease," said Sadat Shamim, MD, Director of Inpatient Neurology and Neurophysiology at the Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.

"Although progressive cerebral volume loss has been described in Alzheimer's disease, in healthy individuals, a relationship with cerebral volume and memory has not been shown," said Dr. Shamim, who was not involved in this study.

"It is very interesting that higher omega 3 fatty acid levels may be associated with better cerebral volumes. However, in a healthy person, the significance of brain volumes is unclear in regards to cerebral health and memory. Furthermore, cerebral volume loss in Alzheimer's disease is likely to be a result, not cause of the disease," he told dailyRx News.

This study was published January 22 in the journal Neurology.

The research was funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the National Institutes of Health and the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Four authors reported links through research funding or service on advisory or safety monitoring boards for a range of institutions, including Lilly, Novartis, WHI, the Brain Center, NIA, Takeda, Amarin, Amgen, Daiichi-Sankyo, Genentech/Hoffmann La Roche, GlaxoSmithKline, KOWA Research Institute, Terumo Medical Corporation, Boehringer-Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals, OmegaQuant Analytics, Health Diagnostic Laboratory, Omthera Pharmaceuticals and Aker BioMarine Antarctic.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
January 26, 2014
Last Updated:
January 29, 2014