Omega-3 Supplements Don't Protect Against Cognitive Decline

A new study from the NIH challenges the long-held belief.

Omega-3 fatty acid might not be the brain food we always thought it was. A new study conducted by the U.S. National Institutes of Health shows that omega-3 supplements doesn’t actually help brain health, despite what previous studies have shown.

“Contrary to popular belief, we didn’t see any benefit of omega-3 supplements for stopping cognitive decline,” Dr. Emily Chew, the deputy clinical director at the NIH’s National Eye Institute and the study’s leader, said in a press release.

Her team had originally set out to investigate vision loss among aging Americans who were given a mixture of antioxidants and minerals. But in a later study, Chew’s team added omega-3 fatty acid supplements to the mix, and they began looking at the formula’s effects on cognitive decline.

The team followed 4,000 older individuals over a five-year period, testing their cognitive function at the beginning of the study and two and four years later. Some patients were given mixtures of supplements containing omega-3s, while others received placebos. All of the patients, regardless of the supplements they used, had the same decrease in brain function over time.

The study’s not saying that omega-3s aren’t at all helpful. Omega-3’s brain-boosting abilities might have a lot to do with their source. While the researchers looked at the effects of supplements, they didn’t assess the benefits of getting the fatty acids straight from the source, from fish such as salmon, tuna, and halibut.

“It could be different if people were actually eating the right foods,” Dr. Chew told Inverse. “You are what you eat. Just because fish oil doesn’t work doesn’t mean eating fish won’t.”

Future studies will have to look at whether administering omega-3 supplements at earlier stages of cognitive decline — or simply giving patients more — will make a difference. For now, Chew’s got one piece of advice for people trying to eat their way to better brain health: “Trust Mother Nature.”

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