We’re all invested in maintaining brain health, particularly over the long haul. Cognitive decline is a too-common side effect of aging, and Alzheimer’s disease is unnervingly prevalent. So it’s important to do what we can to protect the brain. The possibility of adding to our diets more DHA and EPA, the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish (or in fish oil supplements), has been controversial in recent years, but a new study adds some interesting neurological evidence to their effectiveness.
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A team at the University of South Dakota looked at 1,100 postmenopausal women who’d taken part in the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study. The levels of the fatty acids DHA and EPA, found in fatty fish, were measured in their red blood cells (RBCs), and the volume in different areas of their brains, as well as total brain volume, were measured via MRI at the end of the eight-year study.
It turned out that women who had the highest levels of the fatty acids in their red blood cells had greater overall brain volume than women with the lowest. They also had greater volume in the hippocampus – about 2.7% greater – than women with the lowest levels. The hippocampus is the brain area that’s thought to be the seat of learning and memory, and the one most affected by Alzheimer’s disease.
“These higher levels of fatty acids can be achieved through diet and the use of supplements,” said James Pottala in a statement, “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 one to two years.” In other words, the team calculated that consuming higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids might mean the equivalent of up to two extra years of brain health.
Since the body is very poor at converting the omega-3s found in plant sources, namely ALA, to the ones found in fish (again, DHA and EPA), many experts recommend eating fatty fish regularly, or taking high-quality supplements.
Unfortunately, not all fish oil supplements are created equal, as another study has just reported (see below for a nice graphic of the top 10 brands in both quality and value). On average, supplements contained about 14% less DHA than indicated on the label, but there was huge variation across brands. The highest quality supplements were Dr. Tobias, Nordic Naturals, and Axis Labs. The best value supplements were Nature Made, Axis Labs, and NOW Foods.
While there’s no failsafe way to protect the brain against disease, eating a healthy diet full of antioxidants and essential nutrients, is one way to help reduce the risk. Always talk to your doctor about adding supplements to your diet.
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