A new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine provides further evidence that a diet rich in fish supports long-term brain health. Nine years after healthy volunteers (all over 65) reported their eating habits, scientists conducted MRIs on the same group of subjects. The result: people who ate fish at least once per week at the start of the study had less atrophy nine years later in areas of the brain prone to Alzheimer’s disease and important for memory and cognition.
This finding isn’t entirely new. Previous studies have also reported that higher blood levels of EPA and DHA, both omega-3 fatty acids found in many fish, are associated with less brain atrophy and other symptoms of brain aging.
Do fish oil supplements provide the same benefit? This latest study would suggest not, but the evidence remains inconclusive. Supplements can provide high levels of DHA and EPA, but do not supply lean protein, selenium, iron, iodine, zinc, and vitamins that may contribute to brain health. In this study, the level of DHA or EPA in fish was apparently not important to the perceived protection from brain atrophy. Other studies have also reported that though brain health in older people is associated with high fish intake and high DHA or EPA blood levels, it is not necessarily associated with DHA/EPA intake specifically.
Some unanswered questions remain. Supplement use was not recorded in this study, and it’s possible that many study participants used fish oil supplements. Today, more than 37 percent of adults take fish oil, making it the most popular supplement on the market. If participants were using fish oil supplements, then the additional impact of DHA or EPA from fish might have been difficult to separate. On the other hand, mounting evidence consistently suggests that supplements rarely provide the same benefits as a healthy, whole-food diet.
For more information on how fish and DHA omega-3 fatty acids protect the aging brain, read our ratings and report on fish and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, DHA & EPA.
Dr. Penny Dacks, Director, Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease Prevention at the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, trained in neuroscience at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, the University of Arizona, and Queen's University (Canada) with individual fellowships from the National Institute of Health, the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Research Foundation, the ARCS Foundation and the Hilda and Preston Davis Foundation. She has authored over 18 peer-reviewed scientific articles and is a member of the Society for Neuroscience, the Gerontological Society of America, the Endocrine Society and the Association for Women in Science.
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