Diets Lacking in Omega-3 Fatty Acids May Cause Your Brain to Age Faster

Structural brain aging associated with lack of omega-3 acids in diet

A diet deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, typically abundant in fish, may accelerate brain aging and lead to declines in memory and cognitive abilities. Credit: Peter Griffin

A new study from UCLA showed that people with low levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their red blood cells scored lower on tests of visual memory and executive function, including problem-solving, multi-tasking, and abstract thinking.

A new study by scientists from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) shows that a diet lacking in omega-3 fatty acids, which are commonly found in fish, may cause your brain to age faster and lose some of its memory and thinking capabilities. The research demonstrated that people with lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids have lower brain volumes — equivalent to approximately two years of structural brain aging.

The 1,575 dementia-free study subjects (average age 67) underwent MRI brain scans and were given tests measuring mental function, body mass and omega-3 fatty acid levels in their red blood cells. Omega-3 fatty acids include the nutrients docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Researchers found that those whose DHA levels were in the bottom 25 percent had lower brain volumes than those with higher DHA levels. In addition, those whose levels of all omega-3 fatty acids were in the bottom 25 percent scored lower on tests of visual memory and executive function, including problem-solving, multi-tasking, and abstract thinking.


Higher fish intake has been associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular mortality and stroke. And while some studies have shown an association between eating fatty fish and a lower risk of dementia, others have failed to confirm such a protective association. This study, which focused on middle-aged to elderly subjects who were free of clinical stroke and dementia, confirmed the association.

The research appears in the February 28 print issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

Reference: “Red blood cell omega-3 fatty acid levels and markers of accelerated brain aging” by Z. S. Tan, W. S. Harris, A. S. Beiser, R. Au, J. J. Himali, S. Debette, A. Pikula, C. DeCarli, P. A. Wolf, R. S. Vasan, S. J. Robins and S. Seshadri, 27 February 2012, Neurology.
DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e318249f6a9

Dr. Zaldy S. Tan is a member of the Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research in the UCLA Department of Neurology and also holds an appointment in the UCLA Division of Geriatrics.

The study was supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s Framingham Heart Study and the National Institute on Aging.

1 Comment on "Diets Lacking in Omega-3 Fatty Acids May Cause Your Brain to Age Faster"

  1. Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential fatty acids or EFA’s: They are essential to your health but the human body can’ t make them, they must be supplemented through food. Omega-3 fatty acids are commonly found in fish, such as tuna and salmon, and other sea foods. Omega-3 essential fatty acids have also become very popular because they reduce the risk of heart disease and play a huge role in brain functions, as well as normal growth and development.

    Omega-3 essential fatty acids reduce inflammation and lower the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, arthritis and cancer. Omega-3 essential fatty acids are highly concentrated in the brain and are highly important for cognitive and behavioral function. Studies show that infants who do not get enough omega-3 essential fatty acids from their mothers during pregnancy are at risk for developing vision and nerve problems. Symptoms of omega-3 essential fatty acid deficiency include fatigue, poor memory, heart problems, poor circulation, and chronic joint pain.

    It is important to have the proper ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 (another essential fatty acid) in the diet. Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation, and most omega-6 fatty acids tend to promote inflammation.

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