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Tip 182: Take Omega-3 Fish Oil To Decrease Depression and Prevent Alzheimer’s

Thursday, September 29, 2011 9:22 AM
Take an omega-3 fish oil supplement to decrease depression and prevent the cognitive decline that comes with early onset dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. A new study provides more evidence that the omega-3 fatty acids are critical for brain health and slowing cognitive decline. It comes at a fitting time with the news that Pat Summitt, the winningest coach in college basketball history and head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers women’s basketball team, has early onset dementia. Summitt, an eight time NCAA Championship winner, and 1976 Olympic medalist, was diagnosed in May with early onset dementia that will likely lead to Alzheimer’s.

Omega-3s in the form of DHA and EPA should be part of Summitt’s treatment protocol. There’s extensive evidence that these fatty acids improve cognitive function and can help prevent progression of early onset dementia. Also, clinical trials on degenerative brain diseases show that early treatment is critical, meaning now is the time to start supplementing. 

A new study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that taking DHA and EPA fish oil can decrease depression, a common side effect of cognitive decline, and improve brain function, physical health, and verbal fluency. The six-month study compared taking an EPA-rich fish oil (1.67 g of EPA and 0.16 g of DHA) with DHA-rich fish oil (1.55 g DHA and 0.40 g EPA a day). There was a control group that took safflower oil that contained omega-6 fatty acids. The study participants had mild cognitive impairment in the form of short-term memory loss but were maintaining normal daily function.

Both the EPA and the DHA groups significantly reduced symptoms of depression, and the DHA group significantly reduced bodily pain scores, which was a factor in alleviating the depression. Researchers conclude that both EPA and DHA are critical for brain health and preventing cognitive decline, and that DHA is essential for improving mood and decreasing depression. Additionally, the DHA-rich group performed significantly better on verbal fluency and executive function tests, which are both impaired in dementia.
Take note that it's critical to balance omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids for brain health—something I wrote about in Nine Steps to Rebalance Your Fat Intake. In the study mentioned, the safflower oil control group that contained omega-6s had significantly reduced mood ratings and verbal scores. This may simply be a marker of normal cognitive decline for individuals with mild mental impairment but it reinforces the need for a balanced -3 to -6 ratio and DHA-rich supplementation. For best brain function results, make sure you get DHA in addition to EPA, and go for at least 3,000 mgs a day. I typically recommend more, in the range of 1-1.5 grams per body fat percentage point, which can be much as 45 grams—that’s right, 45,000 mgs a day—but 3,000 mgs a day is a good place to start to stop early onset dementia in its tracks.

Calon, F. Omega-3 Polyunsatured Fatty Acids in Alzheimer’s Disease: Key Questions and Partial Answers. Current Alzheimer's Research. August 2011. 8(5), 470-478.
Sinn, N., Milte, C., et al. Effects of N-3 Fatty Acids, EPA v. DHA on Depressive Symptoms, Quality of Life, Memory and Executive Function in Older Adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment: A 6-Month Randomized Controlled Trial. British Journal of Nutrition. September 2011. Published Ahead of Print.

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