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Do Omega-3 Supplements Improve Cognitive Performance?

Young adults were able to improve cognitive performance on a range of tests when they took EPA-rich fish oil for six months.
Do Omega-3 Supplements Improve Cognitive Performance?
Class of adult college students taking a test.  Focus on guy in front left.

Experts have been debating the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil. Marine oils contain both eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). A new study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that supplementing the diet with EPA but not DHA can improve cognitive performance in healthy young adults (Sept. 2021).

How Do We Know EPA Supplements Improve Cognitive Performance?

The investigators recruited 310 volunteers between 25 and 49 years of age. These participants took either EPA-rich oil, DHA-rich oil or placebo oil for half a year. The EPA-rich oil provided 900 mg of EPA and 360 mg of DHA per day. Conversely, the oil rich in DHA contained 900 mg of DHA and 270 mg EPA in each daily serving. Placebo capsules contained refined olive oil. Neither the scientists nor the participants knew which oil each person was taking. To qualify for the trial, participants consumed less than one serving per week of oily fish. This ensured that they were not getting unmeasured additional amounts of fish oil from their diets.

Researchers Assessed Cognitive Performance with Tests:

The scientists conducted three separate trials, with a battery of assessments at the beginning and final point for each. Volunteers tested their reaction time, word recall, verbal fluency and numeric working memory. The battery also covered picture recognition, word recognition, rapid visual information processing, serial subtraction exercises and location learning. Changes in scores over time demonstrated whether the supplements did improve cognitive performance.

Researchers evaluated participants’ accuracy and speed of attention, speed of memory, global accuracy and global speed. Upon analysis, the results revealed showed that those taking EPA improved their global cognitive function. Global accuracy, global speed and accuracy of memory all contributed to this finding. 

Should You Take Fish Oil?

Fish oil containing a preponderance of EPA can help improve cognitive performance, according to this study. Previous research has indicated that it benefits youngsters with ADHD (Translational Psychiatry, Nov. 20, 2019). EPA-rich fish oil can also help reduce the chance of heart disease

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
  • Patan MJ et al, "Supplementation with oil rich in eicosapentaenoic acid, but not in docosahexaenoic acid, improves global cognitive function in healthy, young adults: results from randomized controlled trials." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Sept. 2021. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqab174
  • Chang JP-C et al, "High-dose eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) improves attention and vigilance in children and adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and low endogenous EPA levels." Translational Psychiatry, Nov. 20, 2019. DOI: 10.1038/s41398-019-0633-0
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