Why Upping Omega-3 Intake During Your Midlife Could Offer Increased Brain Benefits

The Omega-3 fatty acids from fish reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease (via Cleveland Clinic), but now a new study published in Neurology found that Omega-3s can boost your brain power in your 40s and 50s. The study measured the concentrations of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in 2,183 people whose average age was 46. The researchers used an MRI to look at the brain matter of the participants, including their hippocampus. The hippocampus is thought to be responsible for our memory and suffers from the most deterioration with Alzheimer's disease (via Neuroscientifically Challenged). The study also looked at the participants' cognitive functions such as episodic memory, executive function, and abstract reasoning.

People who had higher concentrations of Omega-3 had larger hippocampal volumes and better abstract reasoning. The researchers then divided the participants by whether or not they had the APOE-ε4 gene, which is the gene that puts people at greater risk for Alzheimer's disease (per CNN). Among the people who didn't have the APOE-ε4 gene, those with higher DHA levels had higher hippocampal volumes. Those with the Alzheimer's-related gene and higher levels of EPA had higher levels of abstract reasoning compared to those with low levels of this Omega-3 fatty acid.

The importance of Omega-3s in your diet

In a news release about the study, the researchers said that Omega-3s protect the brain, but they don't understand how. Omega-3s also offer protection against cognitive decline for people with the APOE-ε4 gene.

Claudia Satizabal, Ph.D., is the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of population health sciences with the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer's and Neurodegenerative Diseases at UT Health San Antonio. She said that the influence of Omega-3s in protecting the brain against cognitive decline has been found in older populations. "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," Satizabal said.

According to Harvard School of Public Health, Omega-3 fats aren't made by the body, so you have to get them from food. Fish is high in EPA and DHA polyunsaturated fats. Another Omega-3 fat is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which can be found in plant-based food such as nuts, flax seeds, and leafy vegetables.