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Omega-3 fatty acids may delay the loss of brain cells in old age

February 14, 2014

People with higher blood concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids may have larger brain volumes in old age, suggests a new US study.

The observational study measured the concentrations of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in red blood cells and eight years later the brain volumes of 1,111 women aged 78 on average (1). The study results showed that women with higher omega-3 fatty acid levels had a larger total brain volume and hippocampal volume compared to participants with lower levels. Those with double the levels of fatty acids (7.5% vs. 3.4%) had a 0.7% larger brain volume. The higher levels of fatty acids were achieved through the diet and/or use of supplements.

The researchers commented that these results suggest the effect on brain volume is the equivalent of delaying the normal loss of brain cells that comes with aging by one to two years. The positive effect on the volume of the hippocampus is important as this area of the brain plays an important role in memory. In Alzheimer’s disease, the hippocampus begins to shrink (atrophy) even before symptoms appear. While normal aging results in overall brain atrophy, lower red blood cell omega-3 concentrations may signal an increased risk of hippocampal atrophy.

References

  1. Pottala J. V. et al. Higher RBC EPA + DHA corresponds with larger total brain and hippocampal volumes. Neurology. Published online January 2014.