What a New Study Says About Omega-3s and Brain Health

What a New Study Says About Omega-3s and Brain Health
What a New Study Says About Omega-3s and Brain Health

In one of the largest and longest studies of its kind, researchers examined whether supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids helped to slow cognitive decline in older patients. Omega-3 supplements are available over the counter and are often labeled as supporting brain health. Findings were published in JAMA.

Previous research has suggested that diets high in omega-3 fatty acids have a protective effect on the brain. In this large clinical trial conducted at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) over 40,00 patients were followed over a five-year period.

The Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS), lead by Dr. Emily Chew, MD, established that daily high doses of certain antioxidants and minerals – called the AREDS formulation – can help slow the progression to advanced age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

A later study, called AREDS2, tested the addition of omega-3 fatty acids to the AREDS formula. All participants had early or intermediate AMD. They were 72 years old on average and 58% were female. They were randomized to one of the following groups:

  • Placebo
  • Omega-3 [specifically docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, 350mg) and eicosapentaenoic acid (650mg)]
  • Lutein and zeaxanthin 
  • Omega-3 and Lutein/zeaxanthin

Because all participants were at risk for worsening of their AMD, they were also offered the original or a modified version of the AREDS formulation (without omega-3 or lutein/zeaxanthin).

Patients were given cognitive function tests at baseline, then at two and four years later. The tests included eight parts designed to test immediate and delayed recall, attention and memory, and processing speed. The cognition scores of each subgroup decreased to a similar extent over time, indicating that no combination of nutritional supplements made a difference.

“The AREDS2 data add to our efforts to understand the relationship between dietary components and Alzheimer's disease and cognitive decline,” said Lenore Launer, PhD, senior investigator in the Laboratory of Epidemiology and Population Science at the National Institute on Aging. “It may be, for example, that the timing of nutrients, or consuming them in a certain dietary pattern, has an impact. More research would be needed to see if dietary patterns or taking the supplements earlier in the development of diseases like Alzheimer's would make a difference.”

For more information visit NIH.gov.