Study: Omega-3 fatty acids key to maintaining healthy brain function

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May 10, 2023

Aging can be a scary part of life because it comes with an increased risk of health problems, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Although aging is inevitable, you can prevent many diseases and keep your brain healthy by exercising regularly and eating a well-balanced diet to ensure proper nutrition.

According to a recent study published in the journal Neurology, having healthy levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential nutrients found in abundance in fatty fish as well as some nuts and seeds, is key to maintaining healthy brain function as you age.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, investigated the link between omega-3 fatty acid concentrations in red blood cells and brain structure as well as cognitive function in midlife. The researchers also looked at the difference in omega-3 fatty acid levels between carriers of the APOE-e4 gene – the strongest risk factor gene for Alzheimer’s disease – and non-carriers, and how this affected their cognitive abilities. (Related: Keeping an aging brain sharp and avoiding late-life depression required certain nutrients.)

Data gathered from more than 2,000 dementia- and stroke-free participants with a mean age of 46 years suggested that high omega-3 fatty acid concentrations are related to better brain structure and cognitive function.

In non-carriers of the APOE-e4 gene, a high omega-3 index or high levels of the omega-3, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), was linked to larger hippocampal volumes, while in carriers of the gene, high levels of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), also an omega-3, was linked to better abstract reasoning.

The study is one of the first to identify the relationship between omega-3 fatty acid levels and brain health in a younger population.

“The new contribution here is that, even at younger ages, if you have a diet that includes some omega-3 fatty acids, you are already protecting your brain for most of the indicators of brain aging that we see at middle age,” Claudia Satizabal, the study’s lead author, said in a statement.

Omega-3 fatty acids can be obtained largely from dietary sources like oily fish, omega-3-fortified foods and nutritional supplements. In the brain, DHA is incorporated into neuronal and glial cell membranes. Both DHA and EPA are metabolized into bioactive molecules involved in neurogenesis, neurotransmission and inflammation resolution.

In older adults, observational studies suggest that higher DHA and EPA intake may be protective against Alzheimer’s. Meanwhile, a study published in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia linked pro-inflammatory diets, which are low in omega-3s, to smaller brain volumes and other markers of brain aging in the elderly.

Omega fatty acids offer brain benefits

Omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids are all important fats you need to get from your diet. These healthy fats offer brain benefits, but it is important to get the right balance between them.

Nutritionists recommend eating at least two portions of fatty fish per week and using extra virgin olive oil for cooking to get a balanced ratio of omega fatty acids. They also advise reducing your consumption of vegetable oils to limit your intake of omega-6 fatty acids which, at high amounts, are said to be pro-inflammatory.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats, a type of fat your body can’t make, which is why they are referred to as “essential fats,” or fats you need to get from foods. The three types of omega-3s that you need for a healthy brain are:

  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which is needed for the production of eicosanoids that help reduce inflammation. EPA has also been found to help reduce symptoms of depression.
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which makes up about eight percent of your brain weight and is required for healthy brain development and function.
  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is converted, albeit inefficiently, into EPA or DHA inside the body. ALA benefits the heart, immune system and nervous system.

According to studies, EPA and DHA function exclusively via cell membranes and generate metabolites that provide protection to brain cells. While DHA plays a role in cell membrane fluidity and the release of important brain chemicals, EPA influences behavior and mood.

In older adults, EPA and DHA supplementation is deemed necessary because of their significant effect on brain performance. As reported by a study published in the journal Nutrients, EPA can improve blood flow to the brain “globally and on demand in activated brain regions,” which benefits both mood and cognition.

Meanwhile, DHA is said to protect against memory decline by preventing inflammatory brain cell death – the pathological basis for Alzheimer’s disease. By ensuring adequate blood flow and preventing the inflammatory degeneration of brain cells, both EPA and DHA can help older adults maintain optimal brain performance.

EPA and DHA can be obtained directly from fatty fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardines. Vegans and vegetarians can get plenty of ALA from foods like chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts, avocados and some leafy greens. To ensure quality and safety, avoid farmed salmon and always opt for organic produce. Alternatively, you can get omega-3s from fish oil and algal oil supplements.

Omega-6 fatty acids

Omega-6 fatty acids are also essential polyunsaturated fats that mainly provide energy.

The most common omega-6 is linoleic acid, which the body can convert into longer omega-6 fats like arachidonic acid. Arachidonic acid also produces eicosanoids, but unlike the eicosanoids derived from EPA, they are more pro-inflammatory, which is why experts don’t recommend high intakes of linoleic acid.

On the other hand, research has found that increasing your intake of the omega-6, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), can help reduce inflammation. A study published in the journal Pharmaceutical Biology also reported that GLA at low doses exerts an anti-aging effect on the brain. GLA protects against memory and learning impairments by inhibiting the production of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), a family of compounds believed to be responsible for the changes seen during aging as well as the development of many age-related morbidities.

However, unlike linoleic acid, GLA can only be obtained from a handful of sources, such as spirulina and the seed oils of evening primrose, black currant and borage.

Omega-9 fatty acids

Omega-9 fatty acids are monounsaturated fatty acids that are considered not strictly essential since the body can produce them.

Oleic acid, which is found in nuts, seeds and healthy oils like olive oil, is the most common omega-9 fatty acid in the human diet.

According to a Japanese study involving 154 older adults, daily consumption of foods rich in omega-9 helped the participants maintain healthy cognitive functions. Oleic acid, in particular, was found to protect against cognitive decline.

Getting the right amount of nutrients from your diet goes a long way toward preserving a healthy brain as you age. To keep your mind sharp, include abundant sources of omega fatty acids in your diet and follow a healthy lifestyle.

BrainHealthBoost.com has more articles about how to keep your brain healthy.

Watch the following video to learn more about essential fatty acids (EFA) and EFA plus omega-3, 6 and 9 – explained live by Dr. Joel Wallach.

This video is from the InfoHealth News channel on Brighteon.com.

Sources include:

MedpageToday.com

N.Neurology.org

ALZ-Journals.OnlineLibrary.Wiley.com

PLEFA.com

TAndFOnline.com

PubMed.NCBI.NLM.NIH.gov 1

NutraIngredients.com

PubMed.NCBI.NLM.NIH.gov 2

Link.Springer.com

Cell.com

MountSinai.org

MDPI.com

Brighteon.com

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