Overall Diet -- Instead of One Component -- May Protect Women's Brain Health

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Many of my girlfriends who are going through menopause worry about their mental abilities. They admit to having a little fuzzy thinking periodically. And they worry more about the possibility of these blips being signs of dementia or other types of cognitive decline.

    Many of these women have increased the amount of omega-3 fatty acids they're consuming to try to add to their brain's health. But a new study indicates that omega-3 fatty acids along might not work in providing protection.

    Researchers out of the University of Iowa looked at data from 2,157 women who participated in the Women’s Health Initiative. These women, who were between the ages of 65- 80 and had normal cognition, were enrolled in a clinical trial of postmenopausal hormone therapy. They took part in cognitive testing for almost six years.

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    The researchers looked at the relationship between two omega-3 fatty acids – docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)in red blood cells and cognitive ability at the start of the study. They then assessed the participants during the study to see if there were any changes. The researchers assessed cognitive function in seven areas – fine motor speed, verbal memory, visual memory, spatial ability, verbal knowledge, verbal fluency and working memory.

    In doing their calculations, the researchers adjusted for the effects of hormone therapy in those study participants who were taking it, as well as health and lifestyle factors such as exercising and smoking. Their analysis did not find an association between omega-3 levels in the blood and age-associated cognitive decline.

    They did find that the women’s scores did gradually decline over time on the assessments. They noted that the participants were both healthy and well-adjusted, which may have given them a cognitive reserve that kept them from experiencing memory loss even without having extra omega-3 fatty acids. The researchers hypothesized that fatty acids might be a factor in protecting memory in women who had few advantages. Another hypothesis involves measuring fatty acids over a longer period of time; that’s because the levels that were looked at in this study only reflected the women’s diet over a period of several months.

    So what should you do to protect your brainpower as you go through menopause and enter the later stages of life? Researchers are finding that a Mediterranean diet (which includes fish as well as a number of other food groups) is the better route to take.  That’s because a study out of the United Kingdom analyzed 11 observational studies and one randomized controlled trial looking at this type of diet. They found that people who ate this type of eating plan had better brain function as well as lower rates of mental decline and a reduce rate of Alzheimer’s disease. The United Kingdom study was the first systematic review of the research in this area.

    This diet resembles the DASH diet, the Mayo Clinic Diet and the vegetarian diet, according the U.S. News and World Report. The diet is based on the theory that people who live in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea have less chronic illnesses such as cancer and heart disease and live longer. The researchers believe this is due to the foods the people eat as well as their active lifestyle.  This diet emphasizes, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, legumes, olive oil, herbs and spices. Fish and seafood are consumed several times a week while poultry, eggs, cheese and yogurt are enjoyed in moderation. Red meat and sweets are only enjoyed on special occasions. Drinking red wine is encouraged, as is being physically active.

  • This diet is considered generally safe for everyone, although people who have health conditions should discuss potential changes with their doctor prior to making dietary changes.  This diet has been found to have cardiovascular benefits – and remember, what’s good for the heart health-wise is normally good for your head. This diet reduces high blood pressure and “bad” cholesterol.

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    This food plan also can be moderately pricey. That’s because olive oil, nuts, fish and fresh produce can be costly. However, I rationalize it by knowing that protecting my brain is worth it!

    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

    Ammann, E. M., et al. (2013). Omega-3 fatty acids and domain-specific cognitive aging. Neurology.

    Pittman, G. (2013). Omega-3s not tied to women’s mental sharpness. MedlinePlus.

    Preidt, R. (2013). Mediterranean diet may be good for the brain. MedlinePlus.

    U.S. News & World Report. (2013). Mediterranean diet.

Published On: September 27, 2013