Originally designed to test whether omega-3 supplements and other antioxidants could slow or reverse vision loss, the study also explored the benefits of omega-3 in a group of 3,073 older adults aged 55 to 80 years old who were at risk for developing age-related macular degeneration, a condition that causes vision loss over time. Participants were consistently given an omega-3 supplement and/or an antioxidant supplement for eye health versus a placebo over the five year trial. The antioxidants included lutein and zeaxanthin, which have both been shown to improve eye health. Annual eye exams were administered as well as cognitive tests over the phone every two years.
After adjusting for age, sex, race and other factors, the research team analyzed the effect omega-3 supplements had on cognitive scores. Cognitive scores ranged from -22 to 17, with a higher score representing better brain function. They found that the intake of omega-3 or lutein/zeaxanthin had no statistical significance on cognitive function. Participants that received omega-3 had a yearly change in cognitive score of -0.19 and those who did not receive omega-3 had a yearly change of -0.18. The yearly change for those that received the antioxidants was -0.18 versus -0.19 for those that did not receive the antioxidants. The team found there to be no statistical interaction between omega-3 and the antioxidants.
This study concluded that omega-3 supplements do not protect the brain although there could be extraneous factors that were not taken into account. For instance, participants taking the placebo may have included more fish in their diets which would have resulted in a lack of difference between the cognitive outcomes of the two groups. The research team also acknowledges that omega-3 supplements could take longer to prove effective and may provide more benefits in a younger test group. It is unclear whether omega-3 from the diet (e.g. foods such as fatty fish) can have greater health and cognitive benefits than supplements.
The important takeaway is to always be wary of extreme promises. Fish oil supplements are not a cure-all to symptoms of cognitive decline but have the potential to be effective as part of a broader approach to health and wellbeing. Eat a balanced, varied diet, exercise regularly, meditate to reduce stress and engage in mentally-stimulating activities for a proactive and brain-healthy lifestyle.
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