Summary: According to a new study, increasing the intake of omega-3 fatty acids helps maintain brain health and improve cognition in middle age. For people with the Alzheimer’s disease-associated APOE4 gene, omega-3 fatty acid intake was associated with greater hippocampal volume and less small vessel disease.
Source: UT San Antonio
Consuming cold-water fish and other sources of omega-3 fatty acids may preserve brain health and improve cognition in middle age, new evidence shows.
According to a study published online October 5 in Neurology.
Faculty at the University of Texas San Antonio Health Sciences Center (UT Health San Antonio) and other researchers from the Framingham Heart Study conducted the analysis.
“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, PhD, assistant professor of population health sciences in the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases at UT Health San Antonio. Satizabal is the lead author of the study.
The average age of the volunteers was 46 years old. The team looked at the relationship between omega-3 fatty acid concentrations in red blood cells, MRI, and cognitive markers of brain aging. The researchers also studied the effect of omega-3 red blood cell concentrations in volunteers with APOE4, a genetic variation linked to a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
The study of 2,183 participants without dementia or stroke found that:
- A higher omega-3 index was associated with larger hippocampal volumes. The hippocampus, a structure of the brain, plays a major role in learning and memory.
- Consuming more omega-3s was associated with better abstract reasoning or the ability to understand complex concepts using logical thinking.
- APOE4 carriers with a higher omega-3 index had fewer small vessel diseases. The APOE4 gene is associated with cardiovascular disease and vascular dementia.
The researchers used a technique called gas chromatography to measure the concentrations of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in red blood cells. The Omega-3 Index was calculated as DHA plus EPA.
“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, PhD, 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.
The team divided the participants into those who had very low levels of omega-3 red blood cells and those who had at least a little and more.
“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.
Researchers don’t know how DHA and EPA protect the brain. One theory is that because these fatty acids are needed in the membrane of neurons, when they are replaced by other types of fatty acids, that is when neurons (nerve cells) become unstable. . Another explanation could be related to the 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.
Encouragingly, DHA and EPA also protected the brain health of APOE4 carriers. “It’s genetic, so you can’t change it,” Melo van Lent said, referring to the vulnerability of this at-risk group.
“So if there’s a modifiable risk factor that can outweigh the genetic predisposition, that’s a big win.”
About this food and cognition research news
Original research: The findings will appear in Neurology