Scientists have long known that omega-3 fatty acids play a crucial role in brain function, growth and development. But according to a new study published in the February 28 issue of the journal Neurology, middle-aged and elderly adults who regularly eat foods rich in these essential fatty acids may be able to slow the mental decline that leads to dementia.
People with high blood levels of omega-3's were more likely to perform well on tests of mental functioning, and they experienced less age-related brain shrinkage, researchers noted.
Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fish, such as salmon, tuna and halibut, in addition to other seafood like algae and krill, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Certain plants and nut oils also contain the vital nutrients. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish—particularly fatty fish—at least 2 times a week.
"We feel fatty-acid consumption exerts a beneficial effect on brain aging by promoting vascular health," said the study's lead author, Dr. Zaldy Tan, associate professor at the Easton Center for Alzheimer's Disease Research and the division of geriatrics at the University of California, Los Angeles. This might include reducing blood pressure and inflammation, he added.
According to the Alzheimer's Association, previous research linked dementia risk with the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in blood plasma, which reflects how much people had eaten in the past few days. But in current work, researchers can measure the build-up of omega-3's in a person's red blood cells, informing the approximate amount of fatty acids the participants had consumed in the past several months.
"This represents their average intake of fatty acids, not just a snapshot," Tan said.
The benefits of consuming omega-3s is many. Because they reduce inflammation, regularly eating foods rich in the fatty acids may help lower risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and arthritis. And as a bonus: "It enhances radiance and reduces wrinkles and puffiness," says Connecticut dermatologist Nicholas Perricone, author of The Wrinkle Cure.