Plant-Based Omega-3 Fatty Acids May Enhance Cognitive Functioning in Aging

Key Takeaways:

  • A recent study found that individuals with higher blood concentration of omega-3 fatty acids, specifically DHA and EPA, exhibited superior cognitive skills and thicker memory-related brain tissue, reducing the risk of dementia development.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids are important for proper brain function and are found in foods like fatty fish and supplements like fish oil, but they can also be obtained from plant-based sources such as seaweed or microalgae supplements. Vegetarian sources of another omega-3 fatty acid, ALA, include walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds.
  • While omega-3s can benefit brain health, it’s important to consume these in moderation due to potential side effects like bleeding.
  • Aside from omega-3s, a brain-wise diet should also include plenty of vegetables, fruits, fiber-rich grains, and nuts, as well as other lifestyle factors like moderate alcohol consumption and adequate sleep.
  • Obtaining omega-3s from food is preferable to supplements, though the latter is an important option for those who find it difficult to incorporate enough omega-3s into their diet from food sources.

A study conducted on over 2,000 adults in their middle age revealed that individuals with higher blood concentration of omega-3 fatty acids exhibited superior performance on tests involving certain cognitive skills. This group also demonstrated thicker memory-related brain tissue, which is notorious for thinning in elder adults as dementia begins to develop. You can find more details about this research on PubMed .

Omega-3 Fatty Acid and Its Presence in Your Diet

Omega-3 fatty acids, specifically DHA and EPA, can be profusely found in fatty fish like salmon, bluefin tuna, mackerel, herring, and sardines. However, those leading a plant-based lifestyle can benefit from these essential nutrients through supplements like fish oil. For more information about the importance and sources of DHA and EPA, visit the Mayo Clinic website.

The Connection Between Omega-3 and Cognitive Health

Prior studies have drawn a link between higher intake of omega-3 and better cognitive function, including a decreased risk of dementia. Most of these studies, however, focussed on older adults. However, this recent study was centered on middle-aged adults and found potential benefits of omega-3 even at this age.

Begin Taking Care of Your Brain Health Early

Claudia Satizabal, the lead researcher of this study and an assistant professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, believes that brain health should be a priority from the get-go. Early to mid-adulthood serves as an excellent period to implement lifestyle choices that will support healthy brain aging.

Her team scrutinized data from 2,183 participants of the Framingham Heart Study, a research project focused on risk factors for heart disease and stroke. The average age of these participants was 46 years. They underwent MRI brain scans and standard tests of memory and cognitive skills, and their blood levels of DHA and EPA were measured.

Omega-3 Levels and Brain Health: What Do The Findings Say?

The study found that the group with higher omega-3 levels, comprising 75% of the participants, showcased better brain health than those with lower levels. These individuals had a larger volume of tissue in the brain’s hippocampus, an area associated with memory and one of the first to be disrupted when dementia develops.

Those with higher omega-3 levels also outshone others in abstract reasoning tests, which involve the strategic application of thinking to solve novel and unfamiliar problems. Even when the team considered other factors such as age, weight, smoking habits, and existing health conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes, the link between omega-3 levels, brain volume, and test scores remained steady.

Though these findings do not guarantee a cause-effect relationship, they do support findings from other studies that associate omega-3s with greater cognitive abilities. Studies on lab animals have demonstrated that these fatty acids reduce inflammation, protect cells in the hippocampus from dying, foster the generation of new ones, and offer other benefits. For more details, visit this link.

How to Include Omega-3 in Your Diet

Emma Laing, the director of dietetics at the University of Georgia, advocates for two 4-ounce servings of fish per week for most adults. However, for those who cannot or prefer not to consume fish, omega-3 fatty acids can be sourced from fish oil, seaweed, or microalgae supplements.

Laing warns that while these are beneficial, there is such a thing as too much due to potential side effects, such as bleeding. She suggests adhering to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s advice of not exceeding 3 grams of EPA and DHA per day from foods and dietary supplements, unless otherwise prescribed medically.

Other Elements of a Brain-Wise Diet

Omega-3s are only one part of a brain-wise diet. Laing suggests also consuming plenty of vegetables (particularly broccoli and leafy greens), fruits (especially berries), fiber-rich grains, nuts, and other “good” foods, like those found in olive oil and avocados, for optimal brain health.

Other lifestyle factors contributing to brain health include regulating your alcohol consumption and getting adequate sleep.

Supplements or Food? Satizabal Weighs In

Satizabal believes that obtaining omega-3s from food is preferable to supplements but recognizes that this can be challenging for some groups, such as vegetarians or those on a tighter budget. Vegetarian sources of another omega-3 fatty acid, ALA, include walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds. While the body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA, it does so only in minimal amounts. Find out more about ALA on the Cleveland Clinic website.

The takeaway of the study is that even moderate intake of omega-3 can help enhance cognitive functioning and improve brain health.

Additional Resources

For more comprehensive information on omega-3 fatty acids, visit the U.S. National Institute of Health’s website.

Susan Levin

Hello, wellness enthusiasts! I'm Dr. Susan Levin, and while I may share a name with a certain American film producer, our domains couldn’t be more different! My silver screen is the world of medical science, and I have a deep-rooted passion for guiding individuals on their health journeys.Born and raised amidst the picturesque landscapes of Great Britain, I've also called the vibrant state of New Jersey my home for a significant chapter of my life. Both places have contributed to my understanding of health, community, and the diverse lifestyles that shape our well-being.With an M.D. in hand and a wealth of knowledge from years of practice, my goal on is to translate complex medical jargon into understandable, actionable advice for our readers. From the latest health trends to tried-and-true practices, I aim to be your reliable source for all things health and wellness.Join me as we unravel the intricacies of the human body and mind, ensuring that your health journey is informed, inspired, and most importantly, effective.
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