How do omega-3 fatty acids support your brain health as you get older?

As you get older, you may begin to wonder what you can do to help safeguard your health for the future. Eating a healthy, nutritious diet is a great place to start. Not only can the food you eat help to look after your body, but it’s also really important when it comes to taking care of your brain. Your brain is a bit like your own personal computer in your head. It’s your body’s control centre – helping you to think, feel, remember, learn, control and coordinate. So how can your diet support this vital organ as you get older? Read on to find out.

What are omega-3 fatty acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids are good, polyunsaturated fats that help to keep your brain, heart and eyes healthy. They’re also known as essential fatty acids, and are mainly found in oily fish, some plant foods or can be taken as a supplement. Oily fish is often touted as one of the world’s most important ‘brain foods’.

There are 3 main types of omega-3 fatty acids: Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are the omega-3s naturally found in oily fish, while Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is a plant-derived omega-3.It’s the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, that have the most direct health benefits. Your body can make a very small amount of EPA and DHA from ALA, but not enough for good health, so it’s important to get these from the foods you eat or from a high-quality omega-3 supplement.

Omega-3 fatty acids in your brain

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in the membranes (outer layers) of each and every one of the trillions of tiny cells in your body – including your brain cells. They help your brain cells to send signals and communicate with one another.

Your brain tissue also contains omega-3 fatty acids. In particular, the grey matter of your brain – which is responsible for attention, problem-solving, learning and memory – contains large amounts of DHA. As you get older, the grey matter in your brain shrinks, as your brain cells stop communicating with one another and begin to die.

Your brain gets most of the fatty acids it needs from the foods you eat, and only makes a very small amount by itself. In fact, the amount of fatty acids in your brain can change depending on how much you’re getting from your diet. Some studies have found that people who eat fish regularly have more grey matter in their brain. Other studies have shown that older people with more omega-3 fatty acids in their blood may have a slower cognitive decline, less wasting of their grey matter and a lower risk of dementia and depression.

Omega-3s: Anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective

Having a small level of inflammation in your body is a completely normal response – it’s your body’s way of protecting itself from infection and damage. But over time, too much inflammation can lead to problems, including cognitive decline, memory loss and dementia. Omega-3 fatty acids work by reducing the amount of inflammation in your brain and keeping it at a healthy level. They also help to protect your brains cells (neurons) from damage and death as they age. For this reason, omega-3 fatty acids are said to have both anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects on your brain.

Memory loss

It’s normal to experience some memory loss as you get older, and for your brain to process information more slowly. But as the number of people being diagnosed with cognitive illnesses like dementia continues to grow, you may be wondering if there’s anything you can do to help keep your brain sharp.

While there’s no one way to prevent dementia completely, there are a number of things you can do to reduce your risk of developing the condition. Living a healthy lifestyle, such as not smoking, exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet is key. Studies have shown that if you have a healthy brain, or you have a normal amount of mild memory loss, omega-3 fatty acids can help to protect your memory and brain function as you get older. In fact, the World Health Organisation recommends that, if you have normal brain function, or just a small bit of cognitive decline, eating a Mediterranean diet, including oily fish, can help reduce your risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

Unfortunately, if you’ve already been diagnosed with a cognitive illness such as dementia, then starting to take omega-3 won’t improve your symptoms. So, to help slow cognitive decline and ward off dementia, it’s better to take omega-3 supplements sooner rather than later.

How much omega-3 do I need?

For most adults, it’s recommended that you should eat 2 portions of fish each week, and one of these should be oily fish. For adults, one serving is around 140g of fresh fish, or 1 small tin. Examples of oily fish include salmon, mackerel, trout, sardines and kippers. Most people aren’t eating enough fish and are missing out on the omega-3 fatty acids needed for optimum health. Taking a high-quality supplement such as delicious SOMEGA Easy Omega-3 is an excellent way to ensure you’re getting the fatty acids you need to help protect your brain as you get older.

Remember it’s never too late to improve your diet and see benefits to your health. Eating a healthy diet can help protect your brain health and lower your risk of cognitive decline no matter how old you are. But the sooner you can start the better.

Resources:

  • Fact sheets: Good nutrition for the older person. Irish Nutrition & Dietetic Institute, updated May 2016.
  • Fact sheets: What’s the catch with omega 3? Irish Nutrition & Dietetic Institute. Indie.ie, published July 2016.
  • Depression and diet: Food Fact Sheet. The Association of UK Dietitians. bda.uk.com, reviewed April 2019.
  • Fat facts: Food Fact Sheet: The Association of UK Dietitians. bda.uk.com, reviewed January 2018.
  • Omega-3: Food Fact Sheet. The Association of UK Dietitians. bda.uk.com, reviewed September 2017.
  • Nutrition through life: Older adults. British nutrition foundation. Nutrition.org.uk, accessed February 2020.
  • Brain health matters: 5 steps to help to reduce your risk of Alzheimers/Dementia. The Alzheimer Society of Ireland. Alzheimer.ie, accessed February 2020.
  • Risk reduction of cognitive decline and dementia: WHO Guidelines. World Health Organization. Who.int, published 2019.
  • Harada CN, Natelson Love MC &Triebel K. Normal Cognitive Ageing. Clin Geriatr Med 2013; 29 (4): 737-752.
  • Brain Food: GCBG recommendations on nourishing your brain health. Global Council on Brain Health. Aarp.org, published 2018.
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  • Dyall SC. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and the brain: a review of the independent and shared effects of EPA, DPA and DHA. Front Aging Neurosci 2015: 7(52).
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