Higher Levels Of DHA Correlate With Improved Cognitive Function

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March 26, 2010

Higher levels of DHA correlate with improved cognitive function in middle aged men and women

Higher levels of DHA correlate with improved cognitive function in middle aged men and women

The April 2010 issue of the Journal of Nutrition reported the discovery by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh of an association between higher levels of the omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and improved cognitive performance in middle-aged adults. Docosahexaenoic acid, along with eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), is found in oily fish (and algae), which has been associated with numerous benefits when included as part of a healthy diet.

In the introduction to their article, Matthew F. Muldoon and colleagues remark that omega-3 fatty acids' effects on early brain development and late life cognitive function have been studied, although the mechanisms of action remain unclear. They note that two trials found no effects for an omega-3 fatty acid supplement in patients with dementia, yet benefits were observed in older individuals with normal and near-normal cognitive functioning, suggesting that omega-3 fatty acids could have a greater impact on cognitive performance in general than on dementia.

The current study sought to determine the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on cognitive function in middle aged adults who were free of cardiovascular, neurologic or psychiatric disorders. Two hundred eighty men and women between the ages of 30 and 54 were tested on nonverbal reasoning and mental flexibility, attention and concentration, general memory, working memory and verbal knowledge and processing. Blood samples were analyzed for serum phospholipid levels of the omega-3 fatty acids alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), EPA and DHA.

Adjusted analysis of the data uncovered an association between higher levels of DHA and improved test scores in the areas of nonverbal reasoning and mental flexibility, working memory, and vocabulary. No significant associations were found between test scores and ALA or EPA levels.

In their discussion of omega-3 fatty acids' effects on the brain, the authors remark that "it is plausible that insufficient dietary intake is related to relatively poor cognitive abilities or performance throughout the lifespan and that such effects are attributable specifically to DHA." They note that DHA is the predominant omega-3 fatty acid in the brain, and that this fatty acid, in particular, increases cell viability through neuroprotective and antiapoptotic mechanisms while promoting the growth of dendrites and synapses. Although EPA was not found to be associated with cognitive function in the current study, intake of this omega-3 fatty acid has been associated with improvements in mood and impulsivity in other studies, which could suggest a greater role for EPA as a precursor to anti-inflammatory eicosanoids, in contrast with DHA's greater involvement in neuroprotection and as a modulator of oxidative stress and membrane function.

"These findings suggest that DHA is related to brain health throughout the lifespan and may have implications for clinical trials of neuropsychiatric disorders," the authors conclude.

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Health Concern Life Extension Highlight

Mild cognitive impairment—Nutrition to stay sharp

The best strategy for treating mild cognitive impairment is to avoid it in the first place. This means getting plenty of exercise and good sleep, eating a healthy diet, keeping body weight down, avoiding diabetes, and taking the right nutritional supplements before you experience any signs of cognitive decline.

Essential fatty acids are required for many biological functions, including protection from the oxidative effects of free radicals. They are also known to be important for good overall brain health, and a recent study demonstrated in animal models that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids actually switched on brain cell genes that contribute to enhanced functioning (Fontani G et al 2005; Kitajka K et al 2004). These biochemical details may help us understand why diets rich in fish oils and other sources of omega-3 fatty acids are associated with better memory and improved cognition (Kalmijn S et al 1997).

One of the omega-3 fatty acids in particular, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), has attracted significant attention for its ability to boost brain function. DHA is found in very high concentrations in cell membranes and is required by developing infant brains. A lack of DHA in a developing brain results in cognitive and learning deficiencies (Turner N et al 2003). Studies have shown that DHA helps protect brain cells by suppressing a neurotoxic substance called amyloid-beta (Likuw WJ et al 2005), and that supplementation with DHA can reverse the cognitive effects of DHA deficiencies in childhood (Moriguchi T et al 2003). DHA is so valuable to healthy brain function that some experts believe infant formula should be supplemented with it (McCann JC et al 2005).

Taking steps to improve one’s overall health is highly recommended to help prevent or minimize age-associated mental impairment. For example, exercising regularly, not smoking, and monitoring blood cholesterol levels can reduce the risk of stroke and heart disease and keep arteries open, supplying the brain with essential oxygen and nutrients. Abstaining from alcohol can also help preserve mental function.

Since most people tend to eat less as they age, the consumption of low-fat, nutrient-rich food is recommended to help prevent nutrient deficiencies. Eating large quantities of foods rich in antioxidants, such as blueberries, may provide protection from age-related mental decline.

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