If you eat a lot of fish or take omega-3 supplements to stave off memory loss in old age, we at YouBeauty salute you. If you don’t: Start now! (As a bonus, the fatty acids are also bang-up wrinkle fighters. Just sayin’.) Either way, we’ve got some great news for all of you. While the bulk of research says you need omega-3s to prevent bad things from happening in the future—inflammation, clogged arteries, Alzheimer’s disease—a March 2013 study reveals that they can improve how well your brain works right now.
COLUMN: The Myriad of Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
The form of omega-3 you get from fatty fish, docosahexaenoic acid, better known as DHA, is vital for brain health. DHA is one of the main structural components of brain matter, and its ability to slow cognitive decline in older adults as well as its brain-boosting benefits for infants are well established. But for the most part, that’s who takes it—older adults or pregnant mothers and infants.
A team of food and nutrition scientists at Massey University in New Zealand, led by Welma Stonehouse, Ph.D., wanted to know whether or not the average, healthy adult could benefit from DHA. In New Zealand, like in the United States, most adults don’t meet the daily-recommended values for omega-3s, including DHA. In fact, one study found that in the U.S., most adults consume one-third or less than they should. So, the team took nearly 200 adults, ages 18 to 45, that don’t get their daily doses and tested the effects of a DHA supplement on brain functioning. They looked at the participants’ episodic memory, like the ability to recall names and dates, working (short-term) memory, reaction time, processing speed and overall intelligence.
QUIZ: Are You Eating for Health?
Taking a 1.16-gram-per-day DHA supplement for six months (equivalent to two or three weekly servings of oily fish) improved memory as well as the reaction times in the group as a whole, but men and women received different benefits. In women, episodic memory received the biggest boost, with DHA increasing accuracy and the number of pictures or words they could remember. In men, it was the working memory that improved most. Men that received DHA completed the working memory task a whopping 20 percent faster than the men in the placebo group.
This is the first randomized, placebo-controlled trial using DHA on younger adults, and the results are impressive. As the authors explain, these memory-related tests are the building blocks of more-complex cognitive behaviors that are common in everyday life. Thus, this study shows that DHA is important for brains of all ages, not just the youngest and oldest among us.
MORE: Non-Fishy Sources of Omega-3s
DHA can only be found in oily fish like salmon, albacore tuna, lake trout and catfish. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least twice a week, or you can take fish oil or vegetarian-friendly algae supplements. You should be getting between 1,100 and 2,000 milligrams a day of omega-3s, of which DHA should account for ten percent. Researchers have suggested that in the U.S., the average person would need to eat four times more fish to reach the advised amounts. So if you really want to sharpen your mind, start with your diet.