Can Omega-3 Fish Oil Supplements Improve Memory?

It’s estimated that someone in the world develops dementia every three seconds. There are an estimated 50 million people worldwide living with dementia. This number is projected to double every 20 years, reaching 75 million in 2030 and 131.5 million in 2050. These figures are truly frightening.

shutterstock_292698929Although no cure has been found yet, scientists and doctors agree that early detection and treatment are critical to managing the disease. One area receiving a lot of interest is nutritional supplementation. While much research remains to be conducted, several recent studies are beginning to paint a picture for the role that omega-3 fish oil may play in cognitive health.

One recent study presented at the International Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease in Paris and led by researchers at Rhode Island Hospital’s Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders Center found positive associations between omega-3 fish oil supplements and cognitive functioning as well as differences in brain structure between users and non-users of omega-3 fish oil supplements.

The study examined over 800 older adults with normal cognition, mild cognitive impairment, and Alzheimer’s Disease for over three years with periodic memory testing and brain MRIs. Scientists reported that use of omega-3 fish oil supplements was clearly associated with better cognitive functioning and brain volume during the study. However, this association was significant only in those individuals who had a normal baseline cognitive function and in individuals who tested negative for a genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s Disease known as APOE4.

shutterstock_109345547-500pxAnother recent study published in PLOS One and conducted by a team of scientists from the University of Pittsburgh examined healthy young males and females ages 18 to 25 who increased their Omega-3 supplement intake to 2,000 mg per day for six (6) months. The team tested the subjects’ memory with a standard recall test known as the “n-back test” and found that the subjects’ working memory improved up to 23%.

Unfortunately however, omega-3 fish oil supplements do not appear to be dementia’s silver bullet. Many studies suggest that omega-3 fish oil supplements have no significant impact on people who already have some form of Alzheimer’s. For example, in the widely publicized AREDS 2 research (Age-Related Eye Disease Study), scientists found no significant omega-3 fish oil benefit on cognitive decline when they examined the supplement’s use in a group of over 3,000 elderly people at risk of developing macular degeneration, a condition that causes vision loss with age. However, many scientists, including the study leader Dr. Emily Chew, believe it may have been a case of too little, too late to see any effects of the omega-3 on cognition in this group of elderly participants. Omega-3 fatty acids likely take years or possibly decades to exert an effect, just as the decline associated with dementia takes place over a long period of time. “The bottom line is that supplements are not the fast cure,” says Chew. “You are what you eat, and you’ve got to eat well. Maybe it was too late for some of the people in our study.”1

shutterstock_140571478-500pxWhile people already diagnosed with dementia will need to continue to monitor the numerous treatment possibilities currently being studied, there is definite promise for people with normal cognitive function. Results from these and other studies should motivate scientists to further study the possible effects of long-term omega-3 fish oil supplementation to determine the mechanism that affects cognition.
1. “Omega-3 Supplements Don’t Improve Memory: Study” http://time.com/4008936/omega-3-brain-benefits-memory/

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