The #1 Nutrient for Brain Health As You Age, According to a Dietitian

Find out why you need to be consuming omega-3 fatty acids to help improve your cognitive health.

Let's face it, we're all looking for ways to stay sharp as we get older. Whether you've watched a loved one struggle with cognitive decline or simply want to be proactive for your own health, we see you. While your daily dose of the trendy Wordle or alternative game app may certainly be keeping your brain engaged, there's another missing link you may want to consider adding to your regular routine: omega-3 fatty acids. Here's everything you need to know about omega-3s and brain health as you age.

Pictured Recipe: Pan-Roasted Sesame Salmon

What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acids found in three forms: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). You need to consume these fats in your diet, as your body cannot make them in sufficient quantities on its own. Thankfully, seafood sources like salmon, fish oil and krill oil contain the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, while plant-based sources like walnuts, flaxseed and chia seeds contain ALA.

Omega-3 fatty acids have shown promise in multiple areas of wellness, which is why they continue to receive the spotlight. From promoting heart health to reducing inflammation, improving mental health, cognition and more, there is little untouched as far as the benefits of these stellar fats.

Brain Health Benefits of Omega-3s

According to a 2020 study published in the Social Science & Medicine Journal of Population Health, 2 out of 3 Americans will experience some level of cognitive decline by the age of 70. Given the benefits omega-3s have shown in the past regarding cognitive health, researchers are beginning to dive further into the effects this fat has on the aging brain.

Pan-Roasted Sesame Salmon

Why Are Omega-3s Important for Brain Health?

Before we dive into the science, here's a biology refresher. The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are critical components of cell membranes, meaning they play an important role in keeping the brain functioning and facilitating communication between cells. Simply put, they are a big deal when it comes to cognitive health.

According to Taylor Wallace, Ph.D., CFS, FACN, a professor at George Mason University and Forbes Health advisory board member, your body can produce around 10% of EPA and DHA from ALA that's consumed in your diet; however, as we age and with the onset of cognitive decline, this conversion rate becomes even smaller.

He shares, "In both animal and human studies when the diet is void of omega-3 fatty acids, the levels of DHA (in particular) in the brain decrease, accelerating aging and affecting memory."

But don't let this scare you. By incorporating omega-3s into your diet—yes, even starting today—you can begin to reap the benefits well into your future. Mascha Davis, M.P.H., RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist and author of Eat Your Vitamins, shares, "Omega-3s act as a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. When we experience chronic inflammation in the body, cognitive health may decline, and age-related chronic disease conditions may increase. Adequate daily intakes of omega-3s have been shown to help to reduce inflammation in the body and thus protect against some age- and inflammatory-related conditions."

What Science Shows

A 2018 review published in Nutrients evaluated 25 randomized control studies since 2013 that looked at omega-3 supplementation and the role it played on brain health across the lifespan. Researchers found that subjects who supplemented with DHA and EPA saw improvements in blood biomarkers that resulted in health benefits regardless of age. From increased literacy, attention and visual processing in school-aged children to improved cognitive function in older adults, positive results from DHA and EPA supplementation were seen across the board.

While researchers agreed that a growing body of evidence suggests the benefits of augmenting the diet with omega-3 supplementation to support brain health and protect against neurodegeneration in older adults, the methods and measures varied in each study. Some studies focused on older patients found daily intakes of 480 milligrams DHA and 720 mg EPA showed benefits, while others ranged from 800 mg DHA to 225 mg EPA. Thus, further research is warranted to create a consensus on optimum intake levels.

A more recent 2022 study in the journal Nutrients investigated 1,490 participants in the Framingham Offspring Cohort, a large study group of patients in the Boston area. Researchers evaluated the subjects' red blood cell (RBC) DHA levels and subsequent incidence of Alzheimer's disease (AD) and all-cause dementia. They found that participants who had higher RBC DHA levels at baseline experienced a lower risk of Alzheimer's Disease and all-cause dementia as well as half the risk of developing Alzheimer's Disease at followup appointments. Given that genetics certainly plays a role in diseases such as Alzheimer's, researchers found those who were carriers for Alzheimer's Disease may also benefit more from increased dosing of DHA than non-carriers.

Omega-3 Intake Recommendations

Current recommendations from the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans advise consuming fatty fish, like salmon, at least twice a week. However, given that 90% of Americans don't come close to meeting their recommended intakes every week, it's important to consider a supplement to help fill in the gaps. That said, most supplements are totally unregulated, so be sure to choose one that has third-party certification to ensure label accuracy.

Both Wallace and Davis recommend a food-first approach but defer to supplements when dietary intake is lacking, because they're a practical way for consumers to meet their daily needs.

The National Institutes of Health adequate intake recommendations for omega-3s haven't been updated in over 20 years. As such, the current guidelines recommend omega-3 intakes of 1.6 grams per day for men and 1.1 grams per day for women, but these numbers are reflective of ALA recommendations only. Currently, there are no U.S. government dietary recommendations for EPA and DHA.

With that said, the American Heart Association recommends at least 250 mg per day of DHA and EPA to prevent heart disease (1 gram, or 1,000 mg, per day if you have heart disease, and 2 to 4 grams per day if you have high triglycerides) while the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids recommends at least 500 mg DHA and EPA per day to support overall health.

Given these variances (and the differences in omega-3s administered in the studies above), more research is needed to derive a consistent recommended intake for brain health benefits.

The Bottom Line

Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA and DHA, are critical for healthy aging and cognition. While more research is needed on the recommended amounts for optimum brain-health benefits, you should consider upping your intakes of DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids immediately—it's never too late to start! You can do this by committing to eat fatty fish such as salmon, sardines and herring or plant-based sources like chia seeds, walnuts and flaxseeds at least twice per week, and by taking a fish oil or krill oil supplement. (Consult your health care team before starting any supplements, as they can be harmful for people with certain conditions.) Those following a vegetarian or vegan diet can get EPA and DHA from algal oil supplements, which are derived from marine microalgae—the food source that fish use to store up EPA and DHA omega-3s themselves.

For a tasty way to get more fatty fish, consider adding one of these delicious omega-3-rich recipes to your meal plan this week.

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