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The Aging Brain


You probably think of your brain as one organ, that graphic you see of squiggly grey matter. But it’s really made up of many different structures and networks which all function both independently from and interdependently with each other. A recent study showed that these structures even age differently, which is part of the reason why some cognitive functions decline sooner than others. One way to protect those structures susceptible to early deterioration—eat more omega-3s. At least that’s what the research suggests.




Scientists recently studied two areas of the brain responsible for cognitive functions that often decline early in the aging process. One is called the frontoparietal network. This network declines early on, even in those who are aging as well as possible. It’s the part of your brain that directs “fluid intelligence,” which helps you solve problems that you’ve never encountered before.


The other structure they studied is called the fornix, which is a group of nerve fibers that’s important for memory. They studied the blood of adults between the ages of 65 and 75 to see if nutrient patterns in the blood corresponded to performance on cognitive tests. They also looked for relationships between omega-3 fatty acids and the size of structures in the brain, an indicator of whether the structure is healthy or shrinking and shriveling with age.




The studies found that blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids had a direct relationship to fluid intelligence—the higher the levels of omega-3s, the larger the frontoparietal cortex. The people with higher levels and larger brain structures did better on the cognitive tests.


The study on the fornix found that the size of the fornix, and thus, the more memory preservation, was dependent on a healthy balance between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Unfortunately, the Standard American Diet is skewed heavily toward omega-6 fatty acids, and most Americans do not get enough omega-3s in their diet.


In another study, scientists found a relationship between low levels of omega-3s and smaller brain volumes with worse cognitive performance. Subjects with low levels of omega-3s lost some ability to think abstractly and remember. These subjects had significantly lower total brain and white matter volumes, which scientists said “were equivalent to about two years of structural brain aging.”




These studies show that the brain functions vulnerable to early deterioration can be strengthened with a healthy balance of fatty acids and ensuring that the body (and the brain) is getting enough omega-3s. There are three kinds of these fats—ALA, DHA and EPA. ALA is found in certain vegetable oils, walnuts, flaxseeds and soy products. DHA and EPA are found in fish, seafood and fish oils. The current American diet is lacking in omega-3s; as such, supplementing with omega-3 might be a good option to maintain brain health and keep your memory sharp.

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