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Eating Cold-Water Fish May Be Protective Against Alzheimer's

Results of a recent study reported in the scientific journal, Lipids, suggest that eating fish offers protection against Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.

This study evaluated 70 elderly Toronto people, one-quarter of whom already had Alzheimer's disease. Healthy elders without Alzheimer’s were found to have high blood levels of an essential fatty acid found in cold-water fish, such as wild-caught salmon, called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in their blood, while those suffering from dementia had much lower levels of DHA.

According to the lead author of the study, Julie Conquer, a biology professor at the University of Guelph in Toronto, people with some form of dementia had on average 30% to 40% less DHA in their blood than the healthy group.

In addition, low blood levels of DHA were not limited to the Alzheimer’s patients, but were common in other dementias and even all types of cognitive impairment with aging, not just dementias.

Practical Tips

Although nutrition experts disagree as to just how much omega-3 fatty acids we should be consuming each day, many believe that at least 4% of our total daily calories should come from omega-3 fats. This translates to approximately 4 grams of omega-3 fats per day—a goal that can easily be met by making two foods frequent contributors to your healthy way of eating: flaxseeds and wild-caught salmon. Two tablespoons of ground flaxseeds contain 3.5 grams of omega 3 fats, while a 4 ounce piece of salmon contains 1.5 grams of omega 3 fats.

  • Combine canned or left-over cold salmon with greens and vegetables for a delicious salad.
  • For a delicious dip, combine soft tofu and baked or canned salmon with lemon juice, scallions and parsley in your blender.
  • Sprinkle ground flaxseeds onto your hot or cold cereal.
  • Sprinkle ground flaxseeds over cooked vegetables to give them a delicious nutty flavor.
  • Use flaxseed oil instead of other oils in salad dressings, as an oil for dipping bread or to drizzle over steamed vegetables, baked potatoes, whole grain pasta or brown rice.

Want to learn more about the many other health benefits of these omega-3 rich members of the World’s Healthiest Foods? Click salmon or flaxseeds.

For some quick yet exceptionally delicious recipes that will help you enjoy making these foods more frequent contributors to your healthy way of eating, take a look at the World's Healthiest Foods' Recipes. Simply, click on the Recipe Assistant, select salmon or flaxseeds from the Healthy Foods List, and click on the Submit button. A list containing links to all our recipes containing the food chosen will appear immediately below.

Research Review

DHA belongs to a class of fats called omega-3 essential fatty acids—essential because they cannot be made in the body but must be supplied by the foods we eat. Omega-3s are found in relatively high amounts in the brain and are thought to play a critical role in brain function since they are used to build the cellular membranes that surround each brain cell. Cell membranes are the gateways through which the messenger molecules that enable communication among brain cells travel in or out, and through which fuel enters the cell and wastes are removed, so healthy cell membranes are absolutely essential for proper brain function.

The latest research on dementias suggests that all forms of dementia including Alzheimer’s are at least partially caused by excessive free radical activity and resulting inflammation in the brain. As DHA and other omega-3 fats are also used in the body to produce two types of anti-inflammatory hormone-like chemicals called the Series 1 and Series 3 prostaglandins, this may be another mechanism through which these essential fats promote brain health.

Conquer’s research group believes their study provides strong evidence that most of us should eat more fish, especially the higher-fat species. Wild caught fatty fish such as salmon and tuna are the richest sources of DHA, but scallops, halibut and shrimp are also good sources of this essential fat. Eggs may also contain DHA, but the amount they contain depends upon what the hens are fed, so choose eggs labeled “high in omega-3s”.

In addition to eggs and fish, many other members of the World’s Healthiest Foods contain linolenic acid (LA), another omega-3 essential fatty acid that the body can convert into EPA, the biological precursor to DHA. Flaxseeds are an excellent source, and walnuts a very good source of linolenic acid (LA)., Soybeans, kale, collard greens, and Brussels sprouts also supply LA.

To learn more about these essential fats, click omega-3 fatty acids.

For suggestions as to how to enjoy these omega-3 rich members of the World's Healthiest Foods more often, click on the Recipe Assistant, select any of these foods on the healthy foods list, and click on the Submit button. A list containing links to all the World's Healthiest Foods' recipes containing the food chosen will appear immediately below.

To date, the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences has not issued any Dietary Reference Intakes for any omega-3 fat, including DHA. Recently, however, the National Institutes of Health recommended that people consume at least 2% of their total daily calories as omega-3 fats, a classification which includes all of these fats.

To meet this recommendation, a person consuming 2000 calories per day should eat at least 2 grams of omega-3 fats. Many nutrition experts believe that this recommendation is not high enough, and suggest, instead, that people consume at least 4% of their total calories (approximately 4 grams) as omega-3 fats. For suggestions as to how to ensure your consumption of omega-3s is adequate, see our Practical Tips above.

Reference: Conquer JA, Tierney MC, Zecevic J, Bettger WJ, Fisher RH. Fatty acid analysis of blood plasma of patients with Alzheimer's disease, other types of dementia, and cognitive impairment. Lipids 2000 Dec;35(12):1305-12.

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