Do Omega-3s Slow Cognitive Decline?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in current health articles, Healthy Lifestyle, Vitamins and Health

Why Omega-3s Should Be Part Of Your Holistic Brain Health Program

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Omega3-Cognitive-DeclineWho wouldn’t want to avoid dementia and Alzheimer’s in our later years? There is a ton of advice on the internet about “magic” solutions to keep our brains sharp well into our 90s. Unfortunately, most of that advice is contradicted by other claims on the internet that those solutions don’t work. What should a person do if they want to keep their brain healthy?

Two weeks ago I talked about a study showing that a holistic approach, which to me includes healthy diet, weight control, exercise, supplementation, socialization and memory training, significantly reduces cognitive decline in the elderly (Is There Hope For Alzheimer’s?).

Last week I sorted out the conflicting advice about B vitamins and cognitive decline (Do B Vitamins Slow Cognitive Decline?). More importantly, I told you who would benefit from B vitamin supplementation and who would not.

In part three of this series I’m going to help you sort out the conflicting information on omega-3s and cognitive decline. Then I will sum up what a holistic brain health program might look like for you.

Why Might Omega-3s Slow Cognitive Decline?

There are lots of reasons to believe that omega-3 fatty acids are important for brain health and might, therefore, slow cognitive decline. For example:

Omega-3 fatty acids improve blood flow to the brain.

The omega-3 fatty acid DHA is an important part of the myelin sheath, the protective coating for every neuron in our body.

DHA is also converted to a neuroprotective agent that protects the brain from oxidative stress.

The Confusing Evidence About Omega-3s And Cognitive Decline

The data about omega-3s and cognitive function to date have been confusing. Most observational studies have reported better cognitive functioning and lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease in populations that consume large amounts of fatty fish rich in omega-3s. There is also some evidence that omega-3 supplementation improves cognitive function for patients with mild cognitive impairment or very mild Alzheimer’s disease. However, most short-term, randomized, placebo-controlled studies have found no effect of omega-3 supplementation on cognitive functioning for patients who already have mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease.

It had been assumed for years that by the time one already had Alzheimer’s it was too late for omega-3s to exert a protective effect. However, some recent studies have suggested a possible genetic explanation for the conflicting information on omega-3s and cognitive decline.

There is a genetic variant of the ApoE gene called ApoE4 that dramatically increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Around 20-25% of the general population and 40-50% of Alzheimer’s patients have this genotype. Several recent studies have suggested that omega-3s may protect against cognitive decline only in people who do not carry the ApoE4 genotype. The current study (Daiello et al, Alzheimer’s & Dementia, doi: 10.1016/j.jalz.2014.02.005) was designed to test this hypothesis.

Do Omega-3s Slow Cognitive Decline?

This was a very well designed study. The investigators enrolled 819 older adults (average age 75, range 55-90) in the study and followed them for 3 to 4 years. 229 of the participants had normal cognition at enrollment, 337 had mild cognitive impairment and 193 had Alzheimer’s disease. All participants were tested for ApoE genotype.

The study participants were tested at baseline and every 6 months with two tests of cognitive function – the Alzheimer’s Disease Assessment Scale (ADAS) and the fish-oil-benefitsMini-Mental State Examination (MMSE). MRI tests were also done at baseline and every 6 months to assess brain volume.

The participants were asked about fish oil supplement use at each of those times. Only those who reported taking fish oil supplements at every examination were considered fish oil supplement users (117), and only those who never consumed fish oil supplements were considered non-users (682).

The results were pretty interesting:

  • Fish oil supplements significantly decreased cognitive decline and brain shrinkage in the ApoE4 negative population, but not in the ApoE4 positive population.
  • The beneficial effects of fish oil supplementation were only seen in the population with normal cognition at the time the study started. Those benefits were not significant in the populations with mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Unfortunately, the study was not large enough to perform a statistic analysis of the ApoE positive and negative subpopulations of the groups with mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease, so it was not possible to tell whether omega-3s might have been beneficial in people with mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease who are ApoE4 negative.

The authors concluded that their results “highlight the need for future research on the effects of long-term fish oil supplement use on cognitive aging and dementia prevention in middle-aged and older adults”.

They also highlighted a major reason why so many previous studies have failed to find a link between omega-3s and cognitive decline when they said “Studies on cognitive aging that don’t screen subjects for ApoE4 are doomed to failure”.

Putting It All Together: Holistic Approaches For Preserving Brain Health

When I began this series three weeks ago with Is There Hope For Alzheimer’s? , I talked about the importance of holistic approaches. I referred back to a cancer expert who said that he could prove that a holistic lifestyle approach significantly reduced the risk of colon cancer, but he couldn’t prove that any individual lifestyle change had any effect on colon cancer risk.

holistic-health-programThe situation is very similar when we talk about preserving cognitive function. Over the past three weeks I have identified many things that can reduce the risk of cognitive decline – healthy diets, exercise, socialization, mental exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids. If we follow a holistic lifestyle that combines all of these things, we are likely to dramatically increase our probability of maintaining a healthy brain well into our golden years.

However, holistic lifestyle changes are difficult. I know some of you will want to take a simpler approach. You are going to ask:

1)  Are there some individual lifestyle changes that are certain to slow cognitive decline on their own?

The answer is probably not. Maintaining a healthy weight comes close. However, some evidence suggests that it is not obesity itself that increases the risk of dementia. It is the insulin resistance and elevated blood sugar associated with obesity – and not everyone with obesity has insulin resistance and elevated blood sugar levels. So for some people obesity may not increase their risk of dementia. For those people weight loss might not reduce their risk of dementia.

2)  Are there some lifestyle changes I don’t need to make if my diet is OK?

The study I described in last week’s Health Tips From the Professor  found that B vitamin supplementation only reduced the risk of cognitive decline for people who were B vitamin deficient.

So one might assume that you could get a simple test for B vitamin deficiency and determine whether B vitamin supplementation would be beneficial or not. But which test should you get? Who is at risk? Is it the 5-10% of the population with elevated homocysteine levels, the 10% of the population with a deficiency of methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR), the 25% of the population with low blood levels of B6 or the 40% of the population over 60 with B12 deficiency? We simply don’t know.

3)  Is it even worth bothering making lifestyle changes if I’m genetically predisposed to developing Alzheimer’s?

This week’s study found that omega-3s reduced the risk of cognitive decline only in people who did not have the ApoE4 genotype. Does that mean that you should rush out and test yourself for ApoE4?

Here the answer is a clear no. In the first place, we have no idea how the ApoE4 genotype affects the other lifestyle changes that slow cognitive decline.

In addition, there is another, very important reason why most experts, including the professor, decline being tested for ApoE4. The ApoE4 genotype dramatically increases your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, and there is no proven treatment for reducing that risk if you are ApoE4 positive. Who wants to know that they are at increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s if there is nothing they can do about it?

 

The Bottom Line

1)     This study suggests that supplementation with omega-3s (fish oil) significantly reduces cognitive decline and brain shrinkage in older adults (average age 75).

2)     The effect of fish oil supplementation on cognitive decline and brain shrinkage was only seen in people who lacked the ApoE4 genotype. Fish oil supplementation was ineffective in people who were ApoE4 positive.

3)     The study showed that fish oil supplementation was effective at reducing cognitive decline and brain shrinkage in older adults with normal brain function who were ApoE4 negative, but the study was not large enough to determine whether it was also effective in older adults with cognitive decline or Alzheimer’s disease who were ApoE4 negative. Further research is needed to clarify this important point.

4)     This was a relatively well designed study, but it was a small study. Larger, long-term studies are needed to confirm these results. More importantly, based on the results of this study, future studies will need to screen participants for ApoE4 status to assure that there is a large group of ApoE4 negative participants. This would provide enough statistical power to clearly determine whether fish oil supplementation can also benefit people who already have symptoms of cognitive decline or Alzheimer’s and are ApoE4 negative.

5)     Even though ApoE4 status influences the effectiveness of fish oil supplementation on slowing cognitive decline, you probably don’t want to rush out and get yourself tested for ApoE4. We don’t know whether ApoE4 status influences other lifestyle changes that slow cognitive decline. More importantly, the ApoE4 genotype dramatically increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, and there is currently no proven treatment for reducing that risk if you are ApoE4. Who wants to know that they are at increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s if there is nothing you they do about it?

6)     Finally, don’t rely solely on supplementation with B vitamins or omega-3s to reduce your risk of cognitive decline. Your chances of reducing cognitive decline are best with a holistic approach that includes healthy diet, exercise, socialization, mental exercises, maintaining a healthy weight, B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Should We Use Supplements For Cardiovascular Health?

Posted July 10, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Are You Just Wasting Your Money On Supplements?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

supplements for cardiovascular health wast moneyYou’ve seen the headlines. “Recent Study Finds Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Don’t Lower Heart Disease Risk.”  You are being told that supplements are of no benefit to you. They are a waste of money. You should follow a healthy diet instead. Is all of this true?

If I were like most bloggers, I would give you a simple yes or no answer that would be only partially correct. Instead, I am going to put the study behind these headlines into perspective. I am going to give you a deeper understanding of supplementation, so you can make better choices for your health.

 Should we use supplements for cardiovascular health?

In today’s article I will give you a brief overview of the subject. Here are the topics I will cover today:

  • Is this fake news?
  • Did the study ask the right questions?
  • Is this a question of “Garbage In – Garbage Out?
  • Reducing Heart Disease Risk. What you need to know.

All these topics are covered in much more detail (with references) in my book “Slaying The Supplement Myths”, which will be published this fall.

 

How Was This Study Done?

supplements for cardiovascular healthThis study (D.J.A. Jenkins et al, Journal of the American College Of Cardiology, 71: 2540-2584, 2018 ) was a meta-analysis. Simply put, that means the authors combined the results of many previous studies into a single database to increase the statistical power of their conclusions. This study included 127 randomized control trials published between 2012 and December 2017. These were all studies that included supplementation and looked at cardiovascular end points, cancer end points or overall mortality.

Before looking at the results, it is instructive to look at the strengths and weaknesses of the study. Rather than giving you my interpretation, let me summarize what the authors said about strengths and weaknesses of their own study.

The strengths are obvious. Randomized control trials are considered the gold standard of evidence-based medicine, but they have their weaknesses. Here is what the authors said about the limitations of their study:

  • “Randomized control trials are of shorter duration, whereas longer duration studies might be required to fully capture chronic disease risk.”
  • “Dose-response data were not usually available [from the randomized control studies included in their analysis]. However, larger studies would allow the effect of dose to be assessed.”

There are some other limitations of this study, which I will point out below.

Is This Fake News?

supplements for cardiovascular health fake newsWhen I talk about “fake news” I am referring to the headlines, not to the study behind the headlines. The headlines were definitive: “Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Don’t Lower Heart Disease Risk.” However, when you read the study the reality is quite different:

  • In contrast to the negative headlines, the study reported:
    • Folic acid supplementation decreased stroke risk by 20% and overall heart disease risk by 17%.
    • B complex supplements containing folic acid, B6, and B12 decreased stroke risk by 10%.
    • That’s a big deal, but somehow the headlines forgot to mention it.
  • The supplements that had no significant effect on heart disease risk (multivitamins, vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin C) were ones that would not be expected to lower heart disease risk. There was little evidence from previous studies of decreased risk. Furthermore, there is no plausible mechanism for supposing they might decrease heart disease risk.
  • The study did not include vitamin E or omega-3 supplements, which are the ones most likely to prove effective in decreasing heart disease risk when the studies are done properly (see below).

Did The Study Ask The Right Question?

Most of the studies included in this meta-analysis were asking whether a supplement decreased heart disease risk or mortality for everyone. Simply put, the studies started with a group of generally healthy Americans and asked whether supplementation had a significant effect on disease risk for everyone in that population.

That is the wrong question. We should not expect supplementation to benefit everyone equally. Instead, we should be asking who is most likely to benefit from supplementation and design our clinical studies to test whether those people benefit from supplementation.

supplements for cardiovascular health diagramI have created the graphic on the right as a guide to help answer the question of “Who is most likely to benefit from supplementation?”. Let me summarize each of the points using folic acid as the example.

 

Poor Diet: It only makes sense that those people who are deficient in folate from foods are the most likely to benefit from folic acid supplementation. Think about it for a minute. Would you really expect people who are already getting plenty of folate from their diet to obtain additional benefits from folic acid supplementation?

The NIH estimates that around 20% of US women of childbearing age are deficient in folic acid. For other segments of our population, dietary folate insufficiency ranges from 5-10%. Yet, most studies of folic acid supplementation lump everyone together – even though 80-95% of the US population is already getting enough folate through foods, food fortification, and supplementation. It is no wonder most studies fail to find a beneficial effect of folic acid supplementation.

The authors of the meta-analysis I discussed above said that the beneficial effects of folic acid they saw might have been influenced by a very large Chinese study, because a much higher percentage of Chinese are deficient in folic acid. They went on to say that the Chinese study needed to be repeated in this country.

In fact, the US study has already been done. A large study called “The Heart Outcomes Prevention Evaluation (HOPE)” study reported that folic acid supplementation did not reduce heart disease risk in the whole population. However, when the study focused on the subgroup of subjects who were folate-deficient at the beginning of the study, folic acid supplementation significantly decreased their risk of heart attack and cardiovascular death.  This would seem to suggest using supplements for cardiovascular health is a good idea.

Increased Need: There are many factors that increase the need for certain nutrients. However, for the sake of simplicity, let’s only focus on medications. Medications that interfere with folic acid metabolism include anticonvulsants, metformin (used to treat diabetes), methotrexate and sulfasalazine (used to treat severe inflammation), birth control pills, and some diuretics. Use of these medications is not a concern when the diet is adequate. However, when you combine medication use with a folate-deficient diet, health risks are increased and supplementation with folic acid is more likely to be beneficial.

Genetic Predisposition: The best known genetic defect affecting folic acid metabolism is MTHFR. MTHFR deficiency does not mean you have a specific need for methylfolate. However, it does increase your need for folic acid. Again, this is not a concern when the diet is adequate. However, when you combine MTHFR deficiency with a folate-deficient diet, health risks are increased and supplementation with folic acid is more likely to be beneficial. I cover this topic in great detail in my upcoming book, “Slaying The Supplement Myths”. In the meantime, you might wish to view my video, “The Truth About Methyl Folate.”

Diseases: An underlying disease or predisposition to disease often increases the need for one or more nutrients that help reduce disease risk. The best examples of this are two major studies on the effect of vitamin E on heart disease risk in women. Both studies found no effect of vitamin E on heart disease risk in the whole population. However, one study reported that vitamin E reduced heart disease risk in the subgroup of women who were post-menopausal (when the risk of heart disease skyrockets). The other study found that vitamin E reduced heart attack risk in the subgroup of women who had pre-existing heart disease at the beginning of the study.

Finally, if you look at the diagram closely, you will notice a red circle in the middle. When two or three of these factors overlap, that is the “sweet spot” where supplementation is almost certain to make a difference and it may be a good idea to use supplements for cardiovascular health.

Is This A Question Of “Garbage In, Garbage Out”?

supplements for cardiovascular health garbage in outUnfortunately, most clinical studies focus on the “Does everyone benefit from supplementation question?” rather than the “Who benefits from supplementation?” question.

In addition, most clinical studies of supplementation are based on the drug model. They are studying supplementation with a single vitamin or mineral, as if it were a drug. That’s unfortunate, because vitamins and minerals work together synergistically. What we need are more studies of holistic supplementation approaches.

Until these two things change, most supplement studies are doomed to failure. They are doomed to give negative results. In addition, meta-analyses based on these faulty supplement studies will fall victim to what computer programmers refer to as “Garbage In, Garbage Out”. If the data going into the analysis is faulty, the data coming out of the study will be equally faulty. It won’t be worth the paper it is written on. If you are looking for personal guidance on supplementation, this study falls into that category.

 

Should We Use Supplements For Cardiovascular Health?

 

If you want to know whether supplements decrease heart disease risk for everyone, this meta-analysis is clear. Folic acid may decrease the risk of stroke and heart disease. A B complex supplement may decrease the risk of stroke. All the other supplements they included in their analysis did not decrease heart disease risk, but the analysis did not include vitamin E and/or omega-3s.

However, if you want to know whether supplements decrease heart disease risk for you, this study provides no guidance. It did not ask the right questions.

I would be remiss, however, if I failed to point out that we know healthy diets can decrease heart disease risk. In the words of the authors: “The recent science-based report of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, also concerned with [heart disease] risk reduction, recommended 3 dietary patterns: 1) a healthy American diet low in saturated fat, trans fat, and meat, but high in fruits and vegetables; 2) a Mediterranean diet; and 3) a vegetarian diet. These diets, with their accompanying recommendations, continue the move towards more plant-based diets…” I cover the effect of diet on heart disease risk in detail in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths”.

 

The Bottom Line

 

You have probably seen the recent headlines proclaiming: “Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Don’t Lower Heart Disease Risk.” The study behind the headlines was a meta-analysis of 127 randomized control trials looking at the effect of supplementation on heart disease risk and mortality.

  • The headlines qualify as “fake news” because:
    • The study found that folic acid decreased stroke and heart disease risk, and B vitamins decreased stroke risk. Somehow the headlines forgot to mention that.
    • The study found that multivitamins, vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin C had no effect on heart disease risk. These are nutrients that were unlikely to decrease heart disease risk to begin with.
    • The study did not include vitamin E and omega-3s. These are nutrients that are likely to decrease heart disease risk when the studies are done properly.
  • The authors of the study stated that a major weakness of their study was that that randomized control studies included in their analysis were short term, whereas longer duration studies might be required to fully capture chronic disease risk.
  • The study behind the headlines is of little use for you as an individual because it asked the wrong question.
  • Most clinical studies focus on the “Does everyone benefit from supplementation question?” That is the wrong question. Instead we need more clinical studies focused on the “Who benefits from supplementation?” question. I discuss that question in more detail in the article above.
  • In addition, most clinical studies of supplementation are based on the drug model. They are studying supplementation with a single vitamin or mineral, as if it were a drug. That’s unfortunate, because vitamins and minerals work together synergistically. What we need are more studies of holistic supplementation approaches.
  • Until these two things change, most supplement studies are doomed to failure. They are doomed to give negative results. In addition, meta-analyses based on these faulty supplement studies will fall victim to what computer programmers refer to as “Garbage In, Garbage Out”. If the data going into the analysis is faulty, the data coming out of the study will be equally faulty. It won’t be worth the paper it is written on. If you are looking for personal guidance on supplementation, this study falls into that category.
  • If you want to know whether supplements decrease heart disease risk for everyone, this study is clear. Folic acid may decrease the risk of stroke and heart disease. A B-complex supplement may decrease the risk of stroke. All the other supplements they included in their analysis did not decrease heart disease risk, but they did not include vitamin E and/or omega-3s in their analysis.
  • If you want to know whether supplements decrease heart disease risk for you, this study provides no guidance. It did not ask the right questions.
  • However, we do know that healthy, plant-based diets can decrease heart disease risk. I cover heart healthy diets in detail in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths.”

 

For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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