Dementia: The nutrient that could cut the risk of cognitive decline

Dementia: Dr Sara on benefits of being in nature

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Most vitamins and minerals are obtained through a healthy diet. From colourful fruit and veg to dark leafy greens, plant-based foods are a great choice for boosting your health. However, there’s one “essential nutrient” that’s found in oily fish instead – omega 3. What’s more, this nutrient could help reduce your risk of the mind-robbing condition.

Nutritionist and researcher Dr Pam Mason from the Health & Food Supplements Information Service (HSIS) said: “Omega 3 fats are essential for brain function (as well as heart function and eye function). They play a role in brain function throughout the lifespan.

“Minimising cognitive decline is a key focus for older women and omega 3 fats are an essential nutrient.

“Reduced omega 3 status is linked with reduced cognitive function in younger women which could predispose women to cognitive decline in older age as it provides a lower baseline from which brain health could decline.”

The bad news is that many women are lacking this brain-boosting nutrient.

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HSIS latest report titled Diet Disasters for the Seven Ages of Women: How nutritional gaps are putting women’s health under threat across the lifecycle found that intakes of omega-3 fatty acids are lower than recommended in women of all ages.

Dr Mason added: “These findings concur with those found in the US national dietary survey which shows that women’s intakes of omega 3 fatty acids are lower than those of men.”

One reason behind this discrepancy could be women eating smaller amounts of oily fish, the doctor suggested.

This type of fish along with vegetable oils, nuts and flax seeds represents the main source of the fatty acids, according to Harvard Medical School.

The NHS recommends eating one portion of oily fish on a weekly basis. However, the health service also notes that most people aren’t consuming this amount.

What are good food sources of omega 3?

In case you’re not aware, oily fish include the likes of:

  • Herring (bloater, kipper, hilsa)
  • Pilchards
  • Salmon
  • Sardines
  • Sprats
  • Trout
  • Mackerel.

If fish isn’t really your thing, the doctor also suggested other sources of omega 3s.

She said: “Lean, red meat, seafood, eggs, and foods enriched with omega-3 fatty acids.

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“For people wanting a vegan or vegetarian source of omega 3 fatty acids, seeds like linseed, hemp seeds or chia seeds or nuts like walnuts contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).”

However, the expert warned that this type of omega 3 known as ALA needs to be converted in the body into EPA and DHA – the type found in oily fish.

As this conversion is often “inefficient”, she also suggests pairing plant foods with omega-3 supplements.

What does the research say?

One study, published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggests that higher blood levels of omega 3s are associated with a lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Furthermore, lower levels of DHA have been linked to smaller brain size, “a sign of accelerated brain ageing”, according to a study in the journal Neurology.

Dr Mason added: “An analysis of five large studies that followed a total of 23,688 older participants (88 percent women) for 3.9 to 9.1 years found slower rates of decline in memory and cognition with increasing fish intakes.”

However, Alzheimer’s Society shares that “there isn’t very strong evidence that omega-3 itself is behind this benefit”.

The charity explains that it’s likely that fish as a part of a healthy diet can cut the risk of cognitive decline but “the jury’s still out on omega 3”.

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