Have you ever been in a situation when for a brief period of time, you could not remember the name of someone or a phone number?
That happens to all of us on occasion. However, when you start forgetting appointments, having difficulty balancing your checkbook or repeatedly ask your family or friends the same question, this could be the sign of something serious. Dementia is a devastating condition. As a neurologist I deal with these types of patients on a daily basis. Unlike other diseases, it gradually saps you of your memory, thinking ability and even your personality. In the end stages of dementia, patients become incontinent, no longer bother with washing or routine hygiene, have forgotten how to do most simple daily tasks of daily living and, in the more severe stages, no longer recognize family members.
There are various forms of dementia, the most common being that of Alzheimer’s disease. Although it has been said that there are 4 million people in the United States with Alzheimer’s disease, I suspect that this number may be underestimated. The statistics indicate that if you reach the age of 85, there is a 50% likelihood that you will develop Alzheimer’s disease. The numbers are even higher where there is a family history of Alzheimer’s disease. The standard medical treatment for this condition remains generally poor. The medications treat only one neurotransmitter in the brain and, at best, only slow down the progression of the disease. I have always been a big proponent that the best way to treat a chronic illness is to prevent it. This is especially true when it comes to Alzheimer’s disease.
The entire topic of Alzheimer’s disease is beyond the scope of this blog. As previously indicated in other blog posts, I do like to touch upon one or two major points that can provide the readers with some useful information. In the July issue of the Archives of Neurology, researchers out of Chicago performed a prospective study on 815 residents between the ages of 65 and 94 that were initially unaffected by Alzheimer’s disease. This study was conducted between the years of 1993 through 2000. These individuals were followed for the next few years. A total of 131 participants subsequently developed Alzheimer’s disease. It was found that those individuals who consumed fish once per week or more had a 60% reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease compared to those who rarely or never eat fish. In addition, intake of DHA (omega-3 essential fatty acid) was associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Interestingly, EPA, a primary omega-3 fatty acid component of fish, was not associated with a reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s disease.
The results of this study are not surprising. There have been multiple animal studies in medical literature indicating that those animals treated with supplemental omega-3 fatty acids performed better in mazes and showed overall improvement in brain function. The benefits of omega-3 fatty acids have also been demonstrated to carry over into offspring. In a randomized, double-blinded placebo-controlled study reported in the journal Pediatrics in January, pregnant women were given supplementation of omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFA). The children of those women who were given supplemental EFA showed an increased IQ over children born to mothers who were not given supplemental EFA.
DHA is a key contributor to good brain health. More than half of the brain consists of fats, with most of it being DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). DHA is essential to the brain’s synapses where nerve impulses pass between neurons, and to the neuron’s energy-producing mitochondria. Brain cells need adequate levels of DHA; otherwise they are unable to function optimally as a result of being forced to use inferior fats. In infants and young children, DHA plays a critical role in brain development. Low levels of DHA are associated with increased risk of memory loss. Studies show that people with low levels are more likely to develop dementia and other cognitive disorders. One study in Canada found that elderly people suffering from Alzheimer’s and other cognitive impairment had lower DHA levels than elderly people with normal cognitive function.
Low levels of DHA have also been linked to psychological disorders including depression. Studies suggest that some patients with these disorders may not be able to metabolize certain fats. A double-blind, placebo-controlled study conducted at the Harvard Medical School found that patients with manic-depression that were taking omega-3 supplements had no symptoms for a longer period of time versus the patients taking the placebo. It has also been suggested that the high consumption of “bad” fats such as saturated fats and trans fatty acids (e.g., margarine) may play a role in psychological disorders. One big concern is the link between low levels of omega-3 fatty acids and child behavior and development.
Unfortunately, one major problem when taking supplemental fish oil and eating fish is the potential for ingesting mercury and other toxic contaminants. An article recently appeared in The New York Times indicating that in multiple samples of farmed salmon bought on both the east and west coasts, the fish was noted to be contaminated with PCBs. Further investigation found that farmed salmon, which accounts for about 60% of all salmon consumed in the United States, are fed ground up small fish that tend to have high concentrations of PCBs. PCBs are considered highly toxic, cancer causing and may impair fetal brain development.
I found it gratifying when the White House recently issued a directive to encourage higher consumption of omega-3 fatty acids in an attempt to reduce disease rates in the population. Although omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFA) are extremely important for brain function and healthy heart function, choosing the right EFA is vitally important.
References & Further Reading: