Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids have long been praised as food vital to brain functioning. A new study found more evidence that points to the importance of omega-3 fatty acids in helping maintain brain health.
Researchers analyzed data from a recent study called the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study to determine the effect that consumption of omega-3 fatty acids has on the brain. They compared health records of 1,111 women who were an age of 70 years old and had no signs of dementia at the start of the study.
When the study began, levels of omega-3 fatty acids were measured in the womens’ red blood cells. Based on their levels, the women were divided into four separate groups to create an omega-3 index to use for the study. The women underwent MRIs eight years after the initial testing and the results of the MRIs provided researchers with the evidence that bolsters the longstanding claim that omega-3 fatty acids are crucial for brain health.
The researchers found that women with the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids had larger brains than women with the lowest levels, by about two inches. These individuals experienced less brain shrinkage throughout the eight years than those with lower levels.
“The brain gets smaller during the normal aging process – about 0.5 percent per year after age 70, but dementia is associated with an accelerated and localized process of brain shrinkage,” said James Pottala, who led the study.
Strikingly, the hippocampus, the brain region most responsible for forming and storing memories, was 2.7 percent larger in women who had omega-3 levels two times higher than the average. Researchers adjusted their evaluation for external factors like smoking, age, and other health conditions.
Some limitations of the study existed, though, such as the lack of evaluation during the eight year period, so researchers can’t say for sure whether omega-3 fatty acids varied over time or not. Because the study does not prove causality, researchers say more needs to be done to determine whether or not omega-3s are truly what prevented the brain from shrinking.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Health
The study was published recently in the scientific journal Neurology. Many other studies and research have come to the same conclusion: omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial to health, particularly brain health.
The Harvard School of Public Health identifies other proven and potential benefits of consuming adequate levels of omega-3 acids, like controlling blood clotting, building cell membranes in the brain, protecting against heart disease and stroke, and even providing benefits to those with cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, and other autoimmune diseases.
Though the most commonly cited source of omega-3 fatty acids is oily fish, that only represents eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which were the types measured in this specific study. Another form of fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is found in plant sources like walnuts, flaxseed, and rapeseed oil. According to Harvard, the body partially converts ALA to EPA and DHA and every one should aim to get at least one rich source of omega-3 fatty acids in their diet every day, whether it is from plants or fish.
Read more about what to eat to help improve your brain health and reduce your risk of dementia.