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Health Column - February/March 23

Give Your Brain A Boost by Gill Mullins

Hands up who was forced to drink spoonfuls of cod liver oil as a child because your mum said it was good for growing kids? Of course she was right (mums always are) – although this would be less of a bitter “I told you so” pill to swallow had said oil been in a much more palatable capsule, as it generally is these days.

And now there’s a new study showing that omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil can help your brain stay healthy as you get older. Scientists at the University of Texas Health at San Antonio have found that middle-aged people with higher levels of omega-3 in their diets enjoy better brain functioning than those with lower levels.

So what is so special about omega-3 fatty acids?

Essential for good health

As the name suggests, omega-3 fatty acids are types of fats – polyunsaturated fats, to be precise – and they’re essential for health. However, despite being wonderful biochemical factories, our bodies can’t make omega-3s, so we need to get them from food.

Although there are three types of omega-3, the two the researchers were most interested in studying the effects of are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). These are found mainly in oily fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines, but you can also get them in lower concentrations from walnuts, soya and algae oil, as well as pumpkin, flax, chia and hemp seeds. Some eggs and frozen fish are fortified with them too.

EPA and DHA have long been known to protect your heart and blood vessels by lowering triglycerides (fat) in your blood, preventing blood clots, reducing blood pressure and improving circulation, and there’s evidence that they can reduce your risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. They’ve also been shown to improve depression.

Eat your way to a better brain

For this particular study, the researchers looked at fatty acid levels in the blood of just over 2000 men and women with an average age of 46, then gave them MRI brain scans, specifically to examine the hippocampus – a part of the brain that’s important for learning and memory, and which is known to shrink in people with dementia. They also put the participants through tests to measure their abstract thinking, logical reasoning and reading scores.

The results were clear, people with higher blood levels of omega-3s in their blood had a larger hippocampal area and higher reading scores, and they were better at both abstract and logical reasoning than those with lower levels. This chimes with research done on much older people, but the reason the scientists were keen to look at healthy mid-lifers is that this is when cognitive decline often starts to set in – making it an excellent time to start taking preventative action.

So, by eating more foods rich in omega-3s when we’re still relatively young, we could be doing our bit to keep our brains healthier and sharper, and potentially ward off dementia.

Gill Mullins is a freelance writer and journalist at