Can fish oil help to prevent dementia?

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On Tuesday 12th March, as part of the series called Insight Public Lectures, a talk titled ‘Fish oils and brain health: what dose does what in whom?’ was held at Newcastle University. This was also the 24th year of the annual Albert Latner Memorial Lecture in Clinical Biochemistry.

The talk was given by Professor Anne-Marie Minihane, who is currently Professor of Nutrigenetics and Director of Research and Innovation at Norwich Medical School.
The lecture’s focus was the issue of Dementia, and how fish oils could help combat the disease. The Global Burden of Disease looks at which disease is the biggest killer in 195 countries, and Dementia is now the fifth most common. Between 2005-2015, the percentage of Alzheimer cases increased by 38%. This is due to population growth, and because the population is aging, with higher life expectancies. However, the lecture highlighted that whilst life expectancy is increasing, we must also strive to decrease the period of ill health that we see in old age. Minihane explains how nutritional practices can help lead to a long, and healthy, life.
Dementia is the umbrella term to describe a range of symptoms with cognitive impairment. The most common type is Alzheimer’s, but there is also Vascular, Lewy Body and Frontotemperal dementia. The aspect which ties them all together is cognitive decline.

The nutritional approaches to improving cognitive heath can divide into 3 separate sections. The first being dietary patterns; this includes hydration, physical activity, conviviality, cognitive training and sleep. However, the lecture focused on the two other categories: foods and food components (vitamins).
The lecture focused on Omega 3 fatty acids, this includes ALA, EDA and DHA. Minihane explained how EDA and DHA were most beneficial for cognitive development, and they were mostly found in fish.
The current national recommendations are between 0-0.5 g of DHA each day for a healthy person. This equates to two portions of fish a week, with one of these being oily. These recommendations are based on cardiovascular health.

However, there is evidence that DHA protects against Dementia. DHA is a main component in the makeup of brain tissue, suggesting it is highly important for brain function. According to a study that took place in 2018, the benefits appeared greater in females; this is particularly promising as females are generally more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than males.
There have been numerous studies on animals and human cells which have also shown DHA has many positive effects on brain function. It is associated with the development of new neurons, the survival of neurons and the clearance of downregulating the proteins. DHA is also associated with cardiovascular benefits, and cardiovascular health has a major influence on cognitive health. Mahininer then hypothesised how the opening up of blood vessels might be associated with greater blood flow to the brain, which then may be associated with cognitive developments.
For those who don’t eat fish, DHA can be found in algae alternatives. There is also evidence that humans can make their own DHA and EPA from APA, although this is nonefficient.
A recent focus of Minihane’s is the Mediterranean diet. This is a plant-based diet, which involves eating seafood two or three times a week, whilst meats and sweets are consumed rarely. Minihane related this to DHA consumption and hence cognitive health. Although she does acknowledge that there is little evidence yet of this working in the UK.

The lecture ended on the idea of the food-health-environment trilemma. 25% of Greenhouse emission comes from food production, with the majority of this being from meat. She explained how if the whole of the world ate only a Mediterranean, Pescatarian or Vegetarian diet, greenhouse gas emission would be reduced by either 30, 45, or 55% respectively.
Whilst the main topic of the talk was how to keep a healthy mind, Minihane’s conclusion emphasised the importance of a healthy planet.

Last modified: 23rd October 2019

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