By Gretchen Vannice, MS, RDN
By now we all know that Omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients needed throughout life, with adequate intake having a significant impact on overall health and wellness. As one of the most clinically researched nutrients in the world, scientists have been painting a picture of exactly how omega-3s benefit our bodies for quite some time, all the way down to each individual cell.
While both EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) from fish and fish oil play a role in overall brain health, continued research in DHA in particular is revealing some significant insight into brain function over a lifetime.
The human brain needs DHA, beginning with normal infant development all the way up through adulthood.1 One of the reasons is that DHA is a part of healthy brain cell membranes, the outer layer of the cell. In fact, it’s the primary structural omega-3 in the brain, constituting up to 15% of the fat in the brain and 97% of the omega-3s there, making it an integral component of maintenance and function.
Beyond that, studies are now showing that DHA is also integral to the workings of the brain. Supplementing with DHA has been shown to improve learning and mental functioning at any age. Among middle-aged adults, higher DHA levels are associated with better reasoning and problem-solving skills. Healthy DHA levels are even associated with better brain health in seniors, while low DHA levels are linked with decline. 2,3,4,5,6,7
Maintaining our cognitive abilities as we age improves personal relationships, productivity, and quality of life, with research like this suggesting that DHA may be one of our best tools to do so.
Perhaps the most important fact to know about DHA is that, while it is essential to our bodies, we can’t produce it, so we must consume it as part of our diet, and most Americans are not consuming enough for optimal health. At least now, we have a foundation of research to point us toward making simple, smart diet and supplementation choices that could have a meaningful impact on our brain health, and our lives.
1Lauritzen L, et al. Prog Lipid Res. 2001;40:1-94. 2Yurko-Mauro K, et al. Alzheimer’s & Dementia. 2010: 1-9. 3Eskelinen MH, et al. Int. J. Geriatr. Psych 2008;23:741-747. 4Muldoon MF, et al. J. Nutr. 2010. Doi: 10.3945/jn, 109. 119578. 5Soderber M, et al. Lipids. 1991;26(6):421-425. 6Abubakari AR, et al. Intl. J. Gen. Med. 2014:7;463-473. 7González S, et al. Int. J. Food Sci. Nutr. 2010;61:217-225.