Worried About Alzheimer’s? This Supplement May Help Ward It Off, New Study Says

Right now, an estimated 6.5 million Americans over the age of 65 are living with…

Right now, an estimated 6.5 million Americans over the age of 65 are living with Alzheimer’s disease (AD). The vast majority—73 percent—are aged 75 or older, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Yet signs of mild cognitive decline can develop much sooner, showing up in middle age. “In particular, early middle-age (40 to 50 years of age) was characterized by decline in cognitive processing speed, executive control,” a decline in visuospatial functions, and language changes, a 2017 study says. However, new research suggests that by taking certain supplements in midlife, you may be able to protect your brain health and improve cognition. Read on to learn which supplement offers brain-boosting benefits, and why it could be especially helpful to those who are genetically predisposed to Alzheimer’s.

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Several studies have analyzed the brain-boosting benefits of taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements later in life, but fewer researchers have looked at how they affect brain health in one’s 40s and 50s.

However, a new study published in the journal Neurology has found that taking omega-3s during middle age can help to protect brain health and enhance cognition. “Studies have looked at this association in older populations. The new contribution here is that, even at younger ages, if you have a diet that includes some omega-3 fatty acids, you are already protecting your brain for most of the indicators of brain aging that we see at middle age,” Claudia Satizabal, PhD, lead study author and assistant professor of population health sciences with the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases at UT Health San Antonio told Neuroscience News.

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Observing a group of 2,183 participants with an average age of 46, the researchers looked at the link between red blood cell omega-3 fatty acid concentrations and signs of cognitive aging. Though the volunteers were all considered in good cognitive health at the start of the study, some of the participants carried the APOE4 gene, which is linked to higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

“About 25 percent of people carry one copy of APOE4, and 2 to 3 percent carry two copies. APOE4 is the strongest risk factor gene for Alzheimer’s disease, although inheriting APOE4 does not mean a person will definitely develop the disease,” explains a 2021 study from the National Institutes on Aging (NIA).

The researchers learned that having a higher intake of omega-3s was linked with greater hippocampal volume, better abstract reasoning, better ability to understand complex concepts, and more logical thinking patterns. The team noted that those who carried the APOE4 gene but ingested higher levels of omega-3 had a lower incidence of small vessel disease, a cardiovascular condition which can lead to vascular dementia.

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Experts say that omega-3 supplements can protect the brain by providing eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). However, the exact mechanisms behind the benefit remain unclear. The researchers hypothesize that fatty acids may provide anti-inflammatory benefits, support cerebral blood flow, and help keep nerve cells stable.

“It’s complex. We don’t understand everything yet, but we show that, somehow, if you increase your consumption of omega-3s even by a little bit, you are protecting your brain,” Satizabal said.

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For those looking to protect their brain health in middle age, the researchers suggest consuming DHA and EPA as a normal part of your diet. However, they note that their study compared those who had a very low concentration of omega-3s in their red blood cells to those who had slightly more—indicating that even small quantities of omega-3s made a significant difference in outcome. “We saw the worst outcomes in the people who had the lowest consumption of omega-3s,” Satizabal said. “Although the more omega-3 the more benefits for the brain, you just need to eat some to see benefits.”

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends that middle aged men should take 1.6 grams of omega-3s daily, while middle aged women should take 1.1 grams. Other experts suggest that even smaller doses could offer similar benefits: as little as 250 to 500 milligrams could improve your brain and heart health, they say.