Smart Food! More Research Linking Eating Fish to Brain Health

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Growing up, I don’t remember eating much fish. Yes, there were the occasional fish sticks or the can of tuna mixed with mayo and pickle relish to make tuna salad, but very few fish made it onto our plates. Perhaps that’s because our family lived in Colorado and then West Texas, which put us far from fresh seafood catches (other than the occasional Rocky Mountain trout that I’d eat at Denver restaurants). But thanks to new research (as well as the general availability of fresh fish in most grocery stores), it may be time to add it to your weekly menu so you can stave off mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.

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    A new study out of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center found that people who consumed baked or broiled fish weekly may improve their brain health. According to, researchers followed 260 individuals who were selected from the Cardiovascular Health Study and who were cognitively normal.  After analyzing their diet, researchers found that 163 participants consumed fish between 1-4 times weekly. The researchers then analyzed brain gray matter volume through brain mapping and tracked changes over a 10-year period.

    At the end of the study, the researchers looked at the preservation of each participant’s brain gray matter. After taking into account age, gender, education, race, obesity, physical activity and genetic propensity for Alzheimer’s, the scientists found that eating baked or broiled fish weekly was positively associated with gray matter volume in several areas of the brain, including the greater hippocampal, posterior cingulate and orbital frontal cortex. In addition, researchers found an increased level of cognition on people who ate baked or broiled fish. However, consuming fried fish did not result in an increase in brain volume or protect against cognitive decline.

    "Those who eat baked or broiled fish had larger brains," study author Dr. Cyrus Raji, a resident in the department of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Mercy Hospital, told HealthDay for "They had larger brain cells in areas of the brain responsible for memory and learning. And the reason that's important is that these brain areas are at high risk for Alzheimer's disease."

    A Journal of the American Medical Association blog reported that Dr. Raji and his research team were not able to determine which type of fish had been eaten weekly; they also could not determine whether eating several servings of fish each week made a bigger difference.

    Dr. Raji’s hypothesis was that fish consumption was important because of the higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which are believed to protect brain function. According to the American Heart Association, the best sources of omega-3 are fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines and albacore tuna. (And omega-3 fatty acids are also good for heart health since it decreases the risk of abnormal heart disease and triglyceride levels, slow growth of atherosclerotic plaque and slightly lower blood pressure.


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    This study is one of many that link eating fish with brain health. For instance, reported in 2009 on a European study that found higher levels of vitamin D (which is available through oily fish and other foods, as well as sun exposure) to be associated with improved cognitive function in middle-aged and older men. In this study, researchers compared the cognitive performance of more than 3,000 men, age 40-79. They found that men who had higher levels of vitamin D performed better on tests that assessed the person’s attention and speed of processing information. And HealthCentral expert Carol Bradley Bursack wrote in a 2008 sharepost about another study linking a diet rich in fish with brain fitness and cardiovascular health.

    So add fish to your weekly menu planning list. It’s actually easy to prepare. Here are a couple of my favorites recipes, courtesy of Ina Garten and the Food Network – a wonderful salmon salad and roasted salmon with green herbs. Enjoy!

Published On: December 14, 2011