It’s well known that the aging process generally causes the brain to shrink. But there may be hope. A new study of women’s brains is encouraging in that their data show that easily obtained fish oil seems to preserve brain cells and delay shrinkage.
James Pottala is an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of South Dakota in Sioux Falls and principal biostatistician at Health Diagnostic Laboratory Inc. in Richmond, Virginia.
Pottala led a study in which researchers looked at 1,111 post-menopausal women from the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study. Pottala and his colleagues’ research showed that women who had high levels of omega-3 fatty acids retained more brain volume than those with lower levels of Omega-3s.
Omega-3 fatty acids are often referred to as essential fatty acids (EFAs) because they are needed for human health but are not sufficiently produced by the body. During the course of the eight-year trial, the female participants had their red blood cell levels tested for eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) which are two major omega-3 fatty acids. At the end of the eight years, MRI scans were done on the women’s brains to measure their brain volume.
The scientists determined from the scans that the women who had high levels of omega-3 fatty acid levels had 0.7 percent larger brain volume than those with lower levels. Even more important for memory, those with the higher levels of the EFAs had a 2.7 percent larger volume in the hippocampus area of the brain. The hippocampus plays an important part in memory and can begin to atrophy even before Alzheimer’s symptoms appear in those who have the disease. The women in the study averaged 78 years of age.
Omega-3 fatty acids are building blocks for brain cell membranes. According to Pottala, if achieving certain omega-3 levels can prevent or delay dementia, that would have huge mental health benefits, especially since levels can be safely and inexpensively raised through diet and supplements.
The study didn’t measure how much fish the women ate or how large a supplement they consumed, however Pottala said that previous research has shown that healthy men and women eating non-fried oily fish like tuna, salmon or herring twice a week and taking fish oil supplements had a mean red blood cell level of EPA and DHA of 7.5 percent. This level is significantly higher than those who did not eat oily fish and/or take supplements.
Since brain cell membranes are made up of DHA, it makes sense that consuming insufficient amounts of DHA may cause the brain matter to decline over time. The brain also uses DHA to make anti-inflammatory compounds which may play a part in preventing cell death.
More studies will be needed that look at both men and women who are at risk for dementia. Researchers will need to determine whether increasing their fish oil dose until their red blood cell levels exceed eight percent will benefit them.
Fish oil can contribute to overall health
Cardiologist Glenn Gandelman, D, MPH, says that the cardiovascular benefits of Omega-3s include reduction in death after a heart attack. The benefits also include a decrease in triglycerides and other bad cholesterol such as LDL, increases in good cholesterol or HDL plus the prevention of abnormal heart rhythms and blockages of the heart’s arteries.
Gandelman says that other diseases where Omega-3s may help include high blood pressure, arthritis, back pain, osteoporosis, psoriasis, lupus, Crohn’s Disease, back pain, dry eyes, depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and stress-related disorders. Omega-3s are also important for pregnant women and infants, where their depletion may lead to visual or central nervous system problems in children, he added.
While we await more study results about the effect of fish oil on the brain as it pertains to Alzheimer’s disease we can be certain that the rest of our body will benefit from these essential fatty acids. Meanwhile, we’ll hope that additional studies will confirm the results of Pottala’s study and also show that men receive equal benefits.
It looks promising that along with exercise and an overall healthy diet, fish oil will be an additional tool that may help us prevent Alzheimer's or at least stave off the symptoms of the disease.
Ostrow, N. (2014, January 22) Fish Oil May Help Preserve Brain Cells, Study Suggests. Bloomberg. Retrieved from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-01-22/fish-oil-may-help-preserve-brain-cells-study-suggests.html
Gandelman, G. Fish oil contains Omega-3, a substance that has remarkable and beneficial effects on heart disease. HealthCentral. Retrieved from http://www.healthcentral.com/heart-disease/surviving-heart-attack-36549-5.html