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Researchers question benefits of omega-3 supplements

June 15, 2012

There has been a considerable amount of research touting the mental health benefits of omega-3 fatty acid, but some scientists believe the effects may have been overstated. A new review of medical evidence suggests taking omega-3 supplements may not prevent cognitive decline and memory loss as originally thought, Reuters reports.

The supposed benefits stemmed from the belief that since the brain has high levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids, commonly found in fish oil supplements, adding more to the brain could stave off memory loss and cognitive changes associated with old age.

The results of several studies were not as encouraging as scientists had hoped. After analyzing three batches of research, a team of scientists found there was no significant improvement on learning and memory tests between people who took omega-3 supplements and those who took sunflower or olive oil.

"The evidence suggests, from what is available at the moment, that taking supplements rich in omega-3 fatty acids is not going to benefit cognitive health later in life," Alan Dangour, a nutrition researcher, told Reuters.

The team is quick to point out their findings don't suggest there are no health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, just that it may take longer for them to show up in some people. Additionally, they believe it could be because the studies focused on supplements rather than natural sources of the nutrient, such as certain fish. Furthermore, since omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to improve heart health, it still is a good idea to add the nutrient to one's diet.

While the benefits of omega-3 supplements on brain health are under question, one aspect of healthy aging is not: keeping the brain sharp and active. A study earlier this year confirmed that keeping cognitively active throughout life is one of the best ways to help prevent Alzheimer's disease. Scientists hypothesize that an active mind may help reduce the amount of protein often associated with the cognitive disease, according to HealthDay.

There are many options available for seniors to stay mentally active, but one of the most popular is heading back to the classroom. The trend has been helped by colleges and universities who have become increasingly likely to offer programs aimed specifically at older adults. For instance, the University of Wisconsin-Madison lets adults over 50 take noncredit classes, audit other courses and offers a positive aging learning series.