Are you confused about supplements? Over the last few months we have been told by some researchers and medical thought leaders that vitamin E and fish oil were a waste of money and possibly even dangerous. Three weeks ago, however, we were informed that 2000 IU of vitamin E (alpha tocopherol) could slow the decline of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease (JAMA, Jan 1, 2014).
This week an article in the journal Neurology suggests that women with higher levels of omega-3 fats (the type of fat found in fish oil) in their red blood cells have less brain atrophy as they age. The lead author implies that this could lead to better brain function and less dementia.
Most nutrition experts usually say that we should get our nutrients from food rather than pills. That’s certainly been the case with the new fish oil study. We’re told to eat fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, trout, sardines and herring. But the study in Neurology looked at levels of omega-3 fatty acids inside red blood cells. The scientists didn’t distinguish between those omega-3s that came from fish or omega-3s from supplements.
What they discovered was that the participants in the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study who had the highest levels of omega-3 fats had larger brain volumes than those with the lowest levels of omega-3 fats. In particular, the part of the brain most intimately tied to memory (the hippocampus) was measurably larger on MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). The lead author noted that you would have to eat fatty fish at least twice a week or take a fish oil supplement at least five times a week to get comparable levels of omega-3 fatty acids circulating throughout the body.
This was a long-term study with eight years of follow up. In general, larger brain volume is better than smaller brain volume. As the brain atrophies or shrinks, cognitive function tends to decline.
This study of fish oil comes on the heels of a January 1, 2014 study published in The Journal of The American Medical Association showing that vitamin E (2000 IU) was beneficial in slowing the decline of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, one of the more commonly prescribed drugs, Namenda (memantine) was ineffective in this double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.
We are the first to encourage people to get their nutrients from food. Whenever possible, shop locally at a farmer’s market. But not everyone can afford two fatty fish meals a week. And some people hate the taste of fish or are vegetarians. The only way for them to get levels of omega-3 fatty acids comparable to those in the study would be to take supplements. And no matter how many green leafy vegetables you eat, there is no way to get close to the 2000 IU of vitamin E that was given out in the study without taking a supplement.
From our vantage point, there is growing evidence to suggest that both omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E are important nutrients for optimal brain health. Regular exercise is also extremely important, since previous research shows it can help delay cognitive decline.
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