Omega-3 levels may play a role in improving cognitive flexibility in middle-aged people

An exploratory study suggests that people who eat more foods high in omega-3 fatty acids in middle age may have better thinking skills and brain structure than people who eat fewer foods containing fatty acids. The study was published in the October 5, 2022 online issue of Neurology®, Medical Journal of the American Academy of Neurology. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish such as salmon, sardines, trout, and albacore tuna. They are also found in foods fortified with fatty acids or supplements.

Improving our diet is one way to boost brain health. If people can improve their cognitive flexibility and stave off dementia with some simple changes to their diet, this could have a major impact on overall health. Even better, our study suggests that even modest consumption of omega-3s may be sufficient to maintain brain function. This is in line with current American Heart Association dietary guidelines to consume at least two servings of fish per week to improve cardiovascular health.”

Claudia Satizbal, Ph.D., study author, University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio

The cross-sectional study included 2,183 people with an average age of 46 who had not had dementia or stroke. Levels of omega-3 fatty acids were measured. They underwent tests for their thinking skills. They had scans to measure brain volume.

People in the low group had 3.4% of their total fatty acids as omega-3 fatty acids compared to an average of 5.2% for people in the high group. The optimal level is 8% or higher. Levels between 4% and 8% are considered average. Levels less than 4% are considered low.

The researchers adjusted for factors that could influence the results. They also applied a mathematical process to normalize the data. They noticed that people who ate higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids not only had higher average scores on a test of abstract reasoning, but they also had larger average volumes in the hippocampus region of their brains, which plays an important role in memory.

“These findings need to be confirmed by additional research, but it is exciting that omega-3 levels can play a role in improving cognitive flexibility, even in middle-aged people,” Satizbal said.

She noted that the study was a snapshot in time, and participants were not followed over time, so the results do not prove that taking omega-3 fatty acids will maintain brain function. It only shows a link.

While the study included a small percentage of people from many races/ethnicities, Satizbal said the majority of the sample were non-Hispanic white adults, which may limit the ability to apply the findings to other groups.

The study was supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the National Institute on Aging, and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.


Journal reference:

Satizabal, CL, et al. (2022) Association of red blood cell omega-3 fatty acids with MRI markers and cognitive function in middle age: the Framingham Heart Study. Neurology.

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