A study published earlier this month consisting of older adults at risk of late-onset Alzheimer's disease found that omega-3 fatty acids show potential in preventing dysfunction of the aging brain. The individuals who consumed more omega-3s performed better than their peers on tests of cognitive flexibility (the ability to efficiently switch between tasks). The group also had a bigger anterior cingulate cortex, which is the region of the brain that contributes to cognitive flexibility. Higher gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex has been linked to higher omega-3 fatty acid intake as well as superior cognitive flexibility.
The prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease is expected to increase in the US from 5.1 to 13.2 million people by 2050, with health care costs exceeding one trillion dollars. Therefore, a preventive strategy to promote and support healthy brain aging is critical.
There is a significant amount of medical research that demonstrates the beneficial effects of omega-3 fatty acids on cognitive aging. These long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids serve as structural components of neuronal membranes and may have neuroprotective properties through anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and energy metabolism pathways.
Research shows there is a critical link between fatty acid deficiencies and the incidence of both cognitive impairment and degenerative neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's disease. Many individuals are deficient in omega-3 fatty acids and would benefit from supplementation since most people cannot consume enough through diet alone. There is significant evidence that optimal nutrition preserves cognitive function, slows the aging process, and reduces the incidence of chronic diseases.
This study focused on 40 cognitively healthy older adults ages 65-75 years old who are carriers of APOE e4, a gene variant known to contribute to an individual’s risk of developing late-onset Alzheimer's disease. The researchers assessed the participants' cognitive flexibility, measured levels of the fatty acids EPA and DHA in their blood, and imaged their brains using MRI.
The team confirmed that higher omega-3 fatty acid levels were associated with better cognitive flexibility. In addition, they confirmed the correlation between higher omega-3 fatty acids and a higher volume in the anterior cingulate cortex.
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Source: Aron Barbey et al. Anterior cingulate cortex mediates the relationship between O3PUFAs and executive functions in APOE e4 carriers. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, May 2015 DOI:10.3389/fnagi.2015.00087