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Keep cognitively flexible with DHA, EPA

Fish oil may help keep the brains of people at risk for Alzheimer’s more flexible, new research suggests.

Omega-3s keep at-risk-for-Alzheimer’s brains nimble, according to new research. A study of older adults at risk of late-onset Alheimer’s disease found that people who ate more omega-3s had more “flexible” brains.

What, exactly, is cognitive flexibility, and why are we delighted that omega-3s may help with it? Cognitive flexibility is the ability to efficiently switch between tasks. It’s been somewhat overlooked among aging researchers in favor of memory research. “But in fact, cognitive flexibility and other executive functions have been shown to better predict daily functioning than memory does,” said Marta Zamroziewicz, a University of Illinois M.D./PhD student who worked on the study, led by U of I neuroscience, psychology and speech and hearing science professor Aron Barbey. “These functions tend to decline earlier than other cognitive functions in aging,” she said in a university release.

The new study, published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience and noted on, included 40 adults between the ages of 65 and 75 who are carriers of a gene variant that is known to contribute to the risk of developing late-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers tested their cognitive flexibility and DHA and EPA levels. Then, they imaged their brains using MRIs and did some fancy math to figure out the relationship between the data.

"We wanted to confirm that higher omega-3 fatty acids related to better cognitive flexibility, and we did in fact see that," Zamroziewicz said. "We also wanted to confirm that higher omega-3 fatty acids related to higher volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, and we saw that. Finally, we were able to show that higher volume in the anterior cingulate cortex was an intermediary in the relationship between omega-3 fatty acids and cognitive flexibility."

The research enhances the growing body of data that suggests the critical link between nutritional deficiencies and cognitive impairment and neurological disorders like Alzheimer's. "Our findings add to the evidence that optimal nutrition helps preserve cognitive function, slow the progression of aging and reduce the incidence of debilitating diseases in healthy aging populations," said Barbey.

It also may help with mood disorders. Last year, a study suggested that omega-3s may defend populations with an increased likelihood of depression due to inflammation.

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