We are all fatheads.
Indeed, about half the dry weight of our brain is fat. Lower levels of the long-chain omega-3 fat DHA in some areas of Alzheimer’s brains got people thinking that perhaps DHA is protective. Since the level of DHA in the brain tends to correlate with the level of DHA in the blood, cross-sectional studies of dementia and pre-dementia patients have been done. The result? The dementia and pre-dementia subjects do tend to have lower levels of both long-chain omega-3s, EPA and DHA, circulating in their bloodstream. This doesn’t necessarily mean that lower omega-3 levels cause cognitive impairment, however. It was just a snapshot in time, so we don’t know which came first. As I discuss in my video Should Vegans Take DHA to Preserve Brain Function?, maybe the dementia led to a dietary deficiency, rather than a dietary deficiency leading to dementia.
What we need is to measure long-chain omega-3 levels at the beginning and then follow people over time, and, indeed, there may be a slower rate of cognitive decline in those who start out with higher levels. We can actually see the difference on MRI. Thousands of older men and women had their levels checked and were scanned and then re-scanned. The brains of those with higher levels looked noticeably healthier five years later.
The size of our brain actually shrinks as we get older, starting around age 20. Between ages 16 and 80, our brain loses about 1 percent of its volume every two to three years, such that by the time we’re in our 70s, our brain has lost 26 percent of its size and ends up smaller than that of 2- to 3-year-old children.
As we age, our ability to make long-chain omega-3s like DHA from short-chain omega-3s in plant foods, such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and greens, may decline. Researchers compared DHA levels to brain volumes in the famed Framingham Study and found that lower DHA levels were associated with smaller brain volumes, but this was just from a snapshot in time, so more information was needed. A subsequent study was published that found that higher EPA and DHA levels correlated with larger brain volume eight years later. While normal aging results in overall brain shrinkage, having lower levels of long-chain omega-3s may signal increased risk. The only thing we’d now need to prove cause and effect is a randomized controlled trial showing we can actually slow brain loss by giving people extra long-chain omega-3s, but the trials to date showed no cognitive benefits from supplementation…until now.
A “double-blind randomized interventional study provide[d] first-time evidence that [extra long-chain omega-3s] exert positive effects on brain functions in healthy older adults,” a significant improvement in executive function after six and a half months of supplementation, and significantly less brain shrinkage compared to placebo. This kind of gray matter shrinkage in the placebo might be considered just normal brain aging, but it was significantly slowed in the supplementation group. The researchers also described changes in the white matter of the brain, increased fractional anisotropy, and decreases in mean and radial diffusivity—terms I’ve never heard before but evidently imply greater structural integrity.
So, we know that having sufficient long-chain omega-3s EPA and DHA may be important for preserving brain function and structure, but what’s “sufficient” and how do we get there? The Framingham Study found what appears to be a threshold value around an omega-3 index of 4.4, which is a measure of our EPA and DHA levels. Having more or much more than 4.4 didn’t seem to matter, but having less was associated with accelerated brain loss equivalent to about an extra two years of brain aging, which comes out to about a teaspoon less of brain matter, so it’s probably good to have an omega-3 index over 4.4.
The problem is that people who don’t eat fish may be under 4.4. Nearly two-thirds of vegans may fall below 4.0, suggesting a substantial number of vegans have an omega-3 status associated with accelerated brain aging. The average American just exceeds the threshold at about 4.5, though if we age- and gender-match with the vegans, ironically, the omnivores do just as bad. There aren’t a lot of long-chain omega-3s in Big Macs either, but having a nutrient status no worse than those eating the Standard American Diet is not saying much.
What we need is a study that gives those with such low levels some pollutant-free EPA and DHA, and then sees how much it takes to push people past the threshold…and here we go: Phase 2 of the study gave algae-derived EPA and DHA to those eating vegan diets with levels under 4.0. About 250mg a day took them from an average of 3.1 over the threshold to 4.8 within four months. This is why I recommend everyone consider eating a plant-based diet along with contaminant-free EPA and DHA to get the best of both worlds—omega-3 levels associated with brain preservation while minimizing exposure to toxic pollutants.
A list of my recommendations can be found here: Optimum Nutrition Recommendations.
Why not just eat fish or take fish oil? I explain why in these videos:
- PCBs in Children’s Fish Oil Supplements
- Is Fish Oil Just Snake Oil?
- Dioxins in U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish
- Omega-3s, Prostate Cancer, and Atrial Fibrillation
- Fish Consumption and Suicide
- Fish and Diabetes
- ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease): Fishing for Answers
- How Long to Detox from Fish Before Pregnancy?
- Is Fish “Brain Food” for Older Adults
- Fish Fog
How else can we protect our brains? See, for example:
- Preventing Brain Loss with B Vitamins?
- The Alzheimer’s Gene: Controlling ApoE
- Cholesterol and Alzheimer’s Disease
- Reducing Glycotoxin Intake to Prevent Alzheimer’s
- Preventing Alzheimer’s Disease with Diet
- Preventing Alzheimer’s Disease with Plants
- How to Slow Brain Aging by Two Years
Michael Greger, M.D.
PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:
- 2012: Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death
- 2013: More Than an Apple a Day
- 2014: From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food
- 2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet
- 2016: How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers