Omega-3 supplementation found to boost brain function in older adults

Suck the water out of the brain and what’s left is mainly fat. Fat, one could argue, is ‘brain food’, and one particular fat that has received attention with regard to this is DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). DHA is one of the two main types of ‘omega-3’ fat found abundantly in fish such as sardines, mackerel, herring, trout and salmon. Omega-3 fats have been linked with benefits for the brain, including protection from depression and dementia.

Some have asked whether omega-3 fats, and DHA in particular, might have some value in individuals suffering from dementia including Alzheimer’s disease. A recent study in which DHA was trialled for this purpose did not yield positive results, however [1]. In this study, giving 2 grams of DHA today with individuals with mild-moderate Alzheimer’s disease over 18 months did nothing, compared to placebo, to slow the rate at which their brain function declined. Perhaps taking a larger dose and/or longer supplementation might have helped, we don’t know. What we do know is that the results of this study failed to show significant benefit.

However, does that mean that there’s no point in supplementing with DHA, as far as the brain is concerned? Maybe not, according to a recent study published in the journal Alzheimer’s and Dementia [2]. In this study, individuals age 55 or older with ‘age-related cognitive decline’ (impaired brain function associated with ageing but not overt dementia) were treated with 900 mg of DHA or placebo for just 24 weeks.

Those taking the DHA were found to experience benefits in terms of both learning and memory function.

In very recent times we have had one positive and one negative study regarding the effect of DHA on brain function in older adults. In the positive study, a lower dose of DHA was used for a shorter period of time, but in individuals who did not have dementia. The suggestion here is that DHA supplementation is more likely to reap dividends in individuals whose declining brain function is at a relatively early stage.

In addition to insuring a decent intake of omega-3 fats another nutritional approach I would advocate for preserving brain function is to keep blood sugar levels balanced with a relatively ‘primal’ diet including fish (of course), meat, eggs, nuts, seeds, vegetables and some fruit (especially berries). Such a diet will help to reduce the risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes which up the risk of a form of dementia known as ‘vascular dementia’.


1.     Quinn JF, et al. Docosahexaenoic Acid Supplementation and Cognitive Decline in Alzheimer Disease: A Randomized Trial. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 2010;304 (17):1903

2.     Karin Yurko-Mauro, Deanna McCarthy, Dror Rom, Edward B. Nelson, Alan S. Ryan, Andrew Blackwell, Norman Salem Jr., Mary Stedman. Beneficial effects of docosahexaenoic acid on cognition in age-related cognitive decline. Alzheimer’s and Dementia 2010;6(6):456

6 Responses to Omega-3 supplementation found to boost brain function in older adults

  1. David Manovitch 12 November 2010 at 4:35 pm #

    Yes the dementia study just published revealed no benefit but this is not surprising as the damage has been done already.It is logical that fish would have been a part of the ancient diet, as all humans would have had to live near a source of freshwater, and I would guess near the sea too. In the ancient world, most land would have been heavily forested and difficult to travel through, but there are less trees on a coastline, and so more open space.

    There is also Elaine Morgan’s hypothesis of the Aquatic Ape, whereby our ape ancestor, would have had to spend much of the day in the sea to keep cool,during the heat of the Pliocene era, that lasted around 10 million years. Sea food would thus have become a staple of the diet.I commend her book, “The Descent of Woman”.

  2. audrey wickham 12 November 2010 at 4:42 pm #

    The thought occurs, isn’t the fact that mother’s milk is high in fat that makes it good for babies because that it is what babies brains need at that stage in their lives.

    The funny thing about short term and long term memory for me is that whereas I couldn’t remember where I put my specks this morning I could remember where I put a bunch of cheque books a year ago. It is great to know that if I really can’t find something today if I leave it long enough I will find it in the future!

  3. Bill Rowles 13 November 2010 at 1:19 am #

    The interesting stuff is MCTs (mediumium chain triglycerides) – best source coconut oil. Seem to help with omega 3 uptake in brain tissue.. Dr Newport’s site is interesting…

  4. Reijo Laatikainen 18 November 2010 at 5:50 pm #

    I also reviewed these two studies. In addition to time frame, the authors seem to speculate that concommittant antioxidants might be needed in order achieve effects. In Yorko-Mauro trial, they used a combo pill containing also vitamin E & C and rosemary extract. In Quinn et al. trial they used “pure” DHA supplement.


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