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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A Low Carb Diet and Weight Loss

Posted January 15, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Low-Carb Diets Help Maintain Weight Loss?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

low carb dietTraditional diets have been based on counting calories, but are all calories equal? Low-carb enthusiasts have long claimed that diets high in sugar and refined carbs cause obesity. Their hypothesis is based on the fact that high blood sugar levels cause a spike in insulin levels, and insulin promotes fat storage.

The problem is that there has been scant evidence to support that hypothesis. In fact, a recent meta-analysis of 32 published clinical studies (KD Hall and J Guo, Gastroenterology, 152: 1718-1727, 2017 ) concluded that low-fat diets resulted in a higher metabolic rate and greater fat loss than isocaloric low-carbohydrate diets.

However, low-carb enthusiasts persisted. They argued that the studies included in the meta-analysis were too short to adequately measure the metabolic effects of a low-carb diet. Recently, a study has been published in the British Medical Journal (CB Ebbeling et al, BMJ 2018, 363:k4583 ) that appears to vindicate their position.

Are low carb diets best for long term weight loss?

Low-carb enthusiasts claim the study conclusively shows that low-carb diets are best for losing weight and for keeping it off once you have lost it. They are saying that it is time to shift away from counting calories and from promoting low-fat diets and focus on low-carb diets instead if we wish to solve the obesity epidemic. In this article I will focus on three issues:

  • How good was the study?
  • What were its limitations?
  • Are the claims justified?

 

How Was The Study Designed?

low carb diet studyThe investigators started with 234 overweight adults (30% male, 78% white, average age 40, BMI 32) recruited from the campus of Framingham State University in Massachusetts. All participants were put on a diet that restricted calories to 60% of estimated needs for 10 weeks. The diet consisted of 45% of calories from carbohydrate, 30% from fat, and 25% from protein. [So much for the claim that the study showed low-carb diets were more effective for weight loss. The diet used for the weight loss portion of the diet was not low-carb.]

During the initial phase of the study 161 of the participants achieved 10% weight loss. These participants were randomly divided into 3 groups for the weight maintenance phase of the study.

  • The diet composition of the high-carb group was 60% carbohydrate, 20% fat, and 20% protein.
  • The diet composition of the moderate-carb group was 40% carbohydrate, 40% fat, and 20% protein.
  • The diet composition of the low-carb group was 20% carbohydrate, 60% fat, and 20% protein.

Other important characteristics of the study were:

  • The weight maintenance portion of the study lasted 5 months – much longer than any previous study.
  • All meals were designed by dietitians and prepared by a commercial food service. The meals were either served in a cafeteria or packaged to be taken home by the participants.
  • The caloric content of the meals was individually adjusted on a weekly basis so that weight was kept within a ± 4-pound range during the 5-month maintenance phase.
  • Sugar, saturated fat, and sodium were limited and kept relatively constant among the 3 diets.

120 participants made it through the 5-month maintenance phase.

 

Do Low-Carb Diets Help Maintain Weight Loss?

low carb diet maintain weight lossThe results were striking:

  • The low-carb group burned an additional 278 calories/day compared to the high-carb group and 131 calories/day more than the moderate-carbohydrate group.
  • These differences were even higher for those individuals with higher insulin secretion at the beginning of the maintenance phase of the study.
  • These differences lead the authors to hypothesize that low-carb diets might be more effective for weight maintenance than other diets.

 

What Are The Pros And Cons Of This Study?

low carb diet pros and consThis was a very well-done study. In fact, it is the most ambitious and well-controlled study of its kind. However, like any other clinical study, it has its limitations. It also needs to be repeated.

The pros of the study are obvious. It was a long study and the dietary intake of the participants was tightly controlled.

As for cons, here are the three limitations of the study listed by the authors:

#1: Potential Measurement Error: This section of the paper was a highly technical consideration of the method used to measure energy expenditure. Suffice it to say that the method they used to measure calories burned per day may overestimate calories burned in the low-carb group. That, of course, would invalidate the major findings of the study. It is unlikely, but it is why the study needs to be repeated using a different measure of energy expenditure.

#2: Compliance: Although the participants were provided with all their meals, there was no way of being sure they ate them. There was also no way of knowing whether they may have eaten other foods in addition to the food they were provided. Again, this is unlikely, but cannot be eliminated from consideration.

#3: Generalizability: This is simply an acknowledgement that the greatest strength of this study is also its greatest weakness. The authors acknowledged that their study was conducted in such a tightly controlled manner it is difficult to translate their findings to the real world. For example:

  • Sugar and saturated fat were restricted and were at very similar levels in all 3 diets. In the real world, people consuming a high-carb diet are likely to consume more sugar than people in the other diet groups. Similarly, people consuming the low-carb diet are likely to consume more saturated fat than people in the other diet groups.
  • Weight was kept constant in the weight maintenance phase by constantly adjusting caloric intake. Unfortunately, this seldom happens in the real world. Most people gain weight once they go off their diet – and this is just as true with low-carb diets as with other diets.
  • The participants had access to dietitian-designed prepared meals 3 times a day for 5 months. This almost never happens in the real world. The authors said “…these results [their data] must be reconciled with the long-term weight loss trials relying on nutrition education and behavioral counseling that find only a small advantage for low carbohydrate compared with low fat diets according to several recent meta-analyses.” [I would add that in the real world, people do not even have access to nutritional education and behavioral modification.]

 

low carb diet and youWhat Does This Study Mean For You?

  • This study shows that under very tightly controlled conditions (dietitian-prepared meals, sugar and saturated fat limited to healthy levels, calories continually adjusted so that weight remains constant) a low-carb diet burns more calories per day than a moderate-carb or high-carb diet. These findings show that it is theoretically possible to increase your metabolic weight and successfully maintain a healthy weight on a low-carb diet. These are the headlines you probably saw. However, a careful reading of the study provides a much more nuanced viewpoint. For example, the fact that the study conditions were so tightly controlled makes it difficult to translate these findings to the real world.
  • In fact, the authors of the study acknowledged that multiple clinical studies show this almost never happens in the real world. These studies show that most people regain the weight they have lost on low-carb diets. More importantly, the rate of weight regain is virtually identical on low-carb and low-fat diets. Consequently, the authors of the current study concluded “…translation [of their results to the real world] requires exploration in future mechanistic oriented research.” Simply put, the authors are saying that more research is needed to provide a mechanistic explanation for this discrepancy before one can make recommendations that are relevant to weight loss and weight maintenance in the real world.
  • The authors also discussed the results of their study in light of a recent, well-designed 12-month study (CD Gardener et al, JAMA, 319: 667-669, 2018 ) that showed no difference in weight change between a healthy low-fat versus a healthy low-carbohydrate diet. That study also reported that the results were unaffected by insulin secretion at baseline. The authors of the current study noted that “…[in the previous study] participants were instructed to minimize or eliminate refined grains and added sugars and maximize intake of vegetables. Probably for this reason, the reported glycemic load [effect of the diet on blood sugar levels] of the low-fat diet was very low…and similar to [the low-carb diet].” In short, the authors of the current study were acknowledging that diets which focus on healthy, plant-based carbohydrates and eliminate sugar, refined grains, and processed foods may be as effective as low-carb diets for helping maintain a healthy weight.
  • This would also be consistent with previous studies showing that primarily plant-based, low-carb diets are more effective at maintaining a healthy weight and better health outcomes long-term than the typical American version of the low-fat diet, which is high in sugar and refined grains. In contrast, meat-based, low-carb diets are no more effective than the American version of the low-fat diet at preventing weight gain and poor health outcomes. I have covered these studies in detail in my book “Slaying The Food Myths.”

Consequently, the lead author of the most recent study has said: “The findings [of this study] do not impugn whole fruits, beans and other unprocessed carbohydrates. Rather, the study suggests that reducing foods with added sugar, flour, and other refined carbohydrates could help people maintain weight loss….” This is something we all can agree on, but strangely this is not reflected in the headlines you may have seen in the media.

The Bottom Line

 

  • A recent study compared the calories burned per day on a low-carb, moderate-carb, and high-carb diet. The study concluded that the low-carb diet burned significantly more calories per day than the other two diets and might be suitable for long-term weight control. If confirmed by subsequent studies, this would be the first real evidence that low-carb diets are superior for maintaining a healthy weight.
  • However, the study has some major limitations. For example, it used a methodology that may overestimate the benefits of a low-carb diet, and it was performed under tightly controlled conditions that can never be duplicated in the real world. As acknowledged by the authors, this study is also contradicted by multiple previous studies. Further studies will be required to confirm the results of this study and show how it can be applied in the real world.
  • In addition, the kind of carbohydrate in the diet is every bit as important as the amount of carbohydrate. The authors acknowledge that the differences seen in their study apply mainly to carbohydrates from sugar, refined grains, and processed foods. They advocate diets with low glycemic load (small effects on blood sugar and insulin levels) and acknowledge this can also be achieved by incorporating low-glycemic load, plant-based carbohydrates into your diet. This is something we all can agree on, but strangely this is not reflected in the headlines you may have seen in the media.
  • Finally, clinical studies report averages, but none of us are average. When you examine the data from the current study, it is evident that some participants burned more calories per hour on the high-carb diet than other participants did on the low carb diet. That reinforces the observation that some people lose weight more effectively on low-carb diets while others lose weight more effectively on low-fat diets. If you are someone who does better on a low-carb diet, the best available evidence suggests you will have better long-term health outcomes on a primarily plant-based, low-carb diet such as the low-carb version of the Mediterranean diet.

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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