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Holy Mackerel! Fish Really Is Brain Food – Even if You Only Eat Some

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Alessandro Rossi

Could eating salmon, cod, tuna, herring, or sardines keep your brain healthy and your thinking agile in middle age? This study says emphatically, YES.

Eating cold-water fish and other sources of omega-3 fatty acids may preserve brain health and enhance cognition in middle age, according to new evidence from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

In fact, healthy volunteers whose red blood cells contained higher concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids were found to have better brain structure and cognitive function than others who were aged 40-60.

Studies have looked at this association in older senior citizen populations, but this study seems to show 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, says Claudia Satizabal, PhD, assistant professor with the Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases at UT Health. Satizabal is the lead author of the study.

Volunteers’ average age was 46. The team looked at the relation of red blood cell omega-3 fatty acid concentrations with MRI and cognitive markers of brain aging. Researchers also studied the effect of omega-3 red blood cell concentrations in volunteers who carried APOE4, a genetic variation linked to higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

RELATED: Eating Oily Fish Like Salmon May Cut Risk of Developing Alzheimer’s by Nearly 50%

The study of 2,183 dementia- and stroke-free participants found that higher omega-3 index was associated with larger hippocampal volumes. The hippocampus, a structure in the brain, plays a major role in learning and memory.

Consuming more omega-3s was also associated with better abstract reasoning, or the ability to understand complex concepts using logical thinking.

APOE4 carriers with a higher omega-3 index had less small-vessel disease. The APOE4 gene is associated with cardiovascular disease and vascular dementia.

Researchers, who published their research in the Oct. 5 journal Neurology, used a technique called gas chromatography to measure docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) concentrations from red blood cells. The omega-3 index was calculated as DHA plus EPA.

“Omega-3 fatty acids such as EPA and DHA are key micronutrients that enhance and protect the brain,” said study coauthor Debora Melo van Lent, PhD, postdoctoral research fellow at the Biggs Institute. “Our study is one of the first to observe this effect in a younger population. More studies in this age group are needed.”

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The team divided participants into those who had very little omega-3 red blood cell concentration and those who had at least a little and more.

“We saw the worst outcomes in the people who had the lowest consumption of omega-3s,” Satizabal said. “So, that is something interesting. Although the more omega-3, the more benefits for the brain, you just need to eat some to see benefits.”

Researchers don’t know how DHA and EPA protect the brain. One theory is that, because those fatty acids are needed in the membrane of neurons, when they are replaced with other types of fatty acids, that’s when neurons (nerve cells) become unstable. Another explanation may have to deal with the anti-inflammatory properties of DHA and EPA.

“It’s complex. We don’t understand everything yet, but we show that, somehow, if you increase your consumption of omega-3s even by a little bit, you are protecting your brain,” Satizabal said.

CHECK OUT: New Study of ‘MIND’ Diet Shows It May Improve Memory and Thinking Skills in Old Age

It’s encouraging that DHA and EPA also protected APOE4 carriers’ brain health. “It’s genetics, so you can’t change it,” Melo van Lent said, referring to the vulnerability of this risk group. “So, if there is a modifiable risk factor that can outweigh genetic predisposition, that’s a big gain.”

There’s Something Fishy if You Don’t Share This on Social Media to Boost Friends’ Brain Health… 

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