Omega-3 Fatty Acids Can Help Shrinking Brains
January 24, 2014

Fatty Acids Provide Hope For Shrinking Brains

Rebekah Eliason for - Your Universe Online

A shrinking brain is a particularly worrying aspect of growing older. Although this is a normal part of aging, it can indicate Alzheimer’s disease. Recently, a study has discovered good news regarding brain shrinkage. People who have high levels of omega-3 fatty acids also have larger brain volumes in old age.

This new research discovered that larger brain volumes from higher levels of omega-3 are approximately equivalent to adding up to 2 years of brain health.

James V. Pottala, PhD, from the University of South Dakota, along with his colleagues began by assessing the levels of omega-3 eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in red blood cells (RBC) in 1,111 postmenopausal women who were participating in the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study.

In addition, the researchers measured brain volumes by using MRI scans.

Eight years later, the team performed follow-up brain scans on the women, who averaged 78 years of age. The data showed that women with higher levels of omega-3s also had larger total brain volumes.

Women with fatty acid levels of 7.5 percent had a brain volume that was 0.7 percent larger than those with fatty acid levels of 3.4 percent.

Also of significance, the women with higher omega-3 levels showed a 2.7 percent larger volume of the hippocampus. This area of the brain begins to atrophy in patients with Alzheimer’s even before symptoms appear.

To increase omega-3 fatty acid levels, a person can add fats - found in plant and marine life oils - to their diet. Sources of this vital nutrient include oily fish, such as anchovies, salmon and mackerel, along with flax, walnuts, basil, eggs and spinach.

“These higher levels of fatty acids can be achieved through diet and the use of supplements, and the results suggest that the effect on brain volume is the equivalent of delaying the normal loss of brain cells that comes with aging by 1 to 2 years,” explained Pottala.

Another study from December 2013 provided evidence that omega-3 supplements can cross the blood-brain barrier in patients with Alzheimer’s. This affects the markers of inflammation for the disease.

The study also revealed that patients who took an omega-3 supplement every day for 6 months had higher levels of DHA and EPA in their cerebrospinal fluid.

In contrast, several other studies have refuted the health claims regarding omega-3s. For example, a study from 2013 showed that participants who supplemented with omega-3s performed the same on memory tests as those with low fatty acid levels in their blood. They concluded that omega-3 is ineffective at fighting cognitive decline.

Despite the conflicting results of studies, authors of this recent study provide a convincing amount of evidence for omega-3s health benefits. They wrote that their study, “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.”

In the future the authors believe studies “should examine whether maintaining higher RBC EPA and DHA levels slows the rate of hippocampal or overall brain atrophy.”

This study was published in the journal Neurology.