Cognitive Problems & Omega 3 Fatty Acids | Healthy Aging Blog

Omega-3 Fatty Acids Benefit the Aging Brain


Forgetfulness is a common problem for many people as they age, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way.  Improving brain function and reducing memory loss may be as easy as increasing your fish intake or taking a supplement to make sure you are getting enough omega-3 fatty acids in your diet.

The latest research from the Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research and the University of California Los Angeles has found yet again that those with low levels of omega-3 fatty acids more frequently have trouble with their memories.1  The scientists determined that the omega-3 fatty acids may help to fight signs of aging in the brain.

There were 1,575 volunteers involved in the study, with an average age of 67.  None of them had been diagnosed with any form of dementia.  Their red blood cells were tested to evaluate the amount of omega-3 fatty acids present.  Several types of omega-3 fatty acids were also checked including docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is plentiful in salmon, tuna, swordfish, sardines, and krill.  The researchers performed MRI brain scans on the subjects and tested their mental acuity as well.

The participants with low levels of all of the forms of omega-3 fatty acids measured had lower scores on visual memory, mental processing, and abstract thinking tests than their peers with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.  And those who had the lowest amounts of DHA in particular were found to have less overall brain volume than the remainder of the subjects.  In fact, the difference in volume was what the researchers would have expected to find after two extra years of aging.

Earlier studies have discovered a link between a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids and a lower risk of developing dementia.2  This recent study seems to take that one step further by finding that omega-3 fatty acids may provide some protection from memory loss and difficulties with brain function in older people who do not have dementia.

Omega-3 fatty acids have been discussed on this website many times before, especially regarding their importance in balancing our typically heavy omega-6 diets.  Omega-6 fatty acids are commonly found in fast food, processed snacks of all kinds, and highly refined vegetable oils such as corn oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil, peanut oil, and soybean oil.  In fact, there are estimates that soybean oil alone may account for 20 percent of the calories in the typical American diet.3  High levels of omega-6 fatty acids such as these have been linked with cancers and other health issues in numerous studies. Omega-6 fatty acids are essential for good health, but if present in our diets in a ratio higher than 1:1 or 2:1 versus omega-3 fatty acids, they start circulating in your bloodstream as non-esterfied fatty acids (NEFAs), which have been identified as a high independent risk factor for sudden death. The more omega-6 fatty acids you have in your diet, the more omega-3’s you have to supplement with to counterbalance them.

Omega-3 fatty acids come in several forms, three of which are:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the complex form of omega-3 that’s found in most plants, such as flax and chia.  ALA is not actually useful to the body until it’s broken down into its two constituents, EPA and DHA. Unfortunately, this process, which is governed by a particular enzyme (delta-6 desaturase), is significantly inhibited (up to 50% or more) by an overabundance of omega-6 fatty acids. The enzyme is literally “used up” in the desaturation process involved in getting rid of excess omega-6 fats. Therefore the enzyme is no longer available for converting ALA to its usable cousins, DHA and EPA. In addition, the delta-6 enzyme is also inhibited by the trans fatty acids found in hydrogenated oils, margarine, shortening, and refined oils — all significant components of the modern diet. Then there’s the fact that delta-6 is further inhibited by high levels of insulin, a problem in large percentages of civilized societies where obesity and diabetes are soaring. And finally, the process of delta 6-desaturation of linoleic and alpha-linolenic acids slows with aging. The bottom line is that for most people vegetarian sources of omega-3 are not adequate.
  • >Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) provides profound anti-inflammatory activity, enhances the immune system, and provides numerous cardiovascular benefits, including thinning the blood and lowering blood pressure. The primary sources of both EPA and DHA are fatty fish, marine animals, and algae.
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a major fatty acid in sperm and brain phospholipids, and especially in the retina.  Dietary DHA can reduce the level of blood triglycerides in humans, which may reduce the risk of heart disease.  It also appears to play a major role in preventing and relieving Alzheimer’s disease and depression. And as studies now indicate, it may play a major role in slowing down brain aging.

All of these work to make omega-3 fatty acids beneficial to your overall health and your brain in particular.  With a little attention to detail, you can restore some balance to your diet by making choices that help move the omega-6/omega-3 ratio closer to the ideal 1:1 or at least 2:1.  Avoid the high omega-6 vegetable oils found in your supermarket, opt for grass fed beef if you eat meat (better fat ratio), and incorporate more omega-3 oils into your diet. You also probably want to consider supplementing with fish oil and/or krill oil capsules. You’ll be giving your brain a boost, improving memory, and possibly heading off the cognitive problems that plague so many people as they get older.

1 Warner, Jennifer. “Omega-3 Fatty Acids Help Brain Age Better.” WebMD. 27 February 2012. Accessed 21 March 2012. <>.

2 Lim, WS; Gammack, JK, Van Niekerk, J and Dangour, AD. “Omega 3 fatty acid for the prevention of dementia.” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 25 January 2006. Accessed 21 March 2012. <>.

3 Pifer, Angela. “The Truth About Fats, Carbohydrates and Protein in the American Diet.” Red Cedar Wellness Center. 22 July 2010. Accessed 21 March 2012. <>.

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