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Study raises doubt about health benefits of omega-3

25 August 2015  •  Author: Victoria White

A large clinical trial by researchers at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has found that omega-3 supplements did not slow cognitive decline in older people.

omega-3

With 4,000 patients followed over a five-year period, the study is one of the largest and longest of its kind.

“Contrary to popular belief, we didn’t see any benefit of omega-3 supplements for stopping cognitive decline,” said Emily Chew, M.D., deputy director of the Division of Epidemiology and Clinical Applications and deputy clinical director at the National Eye Institute (NEI), part of NIH.

Dr Chew leads the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS), which was designed to investigate a combination of nutritional supplements for slowing age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a major cause of vision loss among older Americans. That study established that daily high doses of certain antioxidants and minerals – known as the AREDS formula – can help slow the progression to advanced AMD.

Omega-3 fatty acids are concentrated in fish oils

A later study, called AREDS2, tested the addition of omega-3 fatty acids to the AREDS formula. But the omega-3’s made no difference. Omega-3 fatty acids are made by marine algae and are concentrated in fish oils; they are believed to be responsible for the health benefits associated with regularly eating fish, such as salmon, tuna, and halibut. Other omega-3 fatty acids are found in plant foods but omega-3 fatty acids from these sources were not studied.

Where studies have surveyed people on their dietary habits and health, they’ve found that regular consumption of fish is associated with lower rates of AMD, cardiovascular disease, and possibly dementia. “We’ve seen data that eating foods with omega-3 may have a benefit for eye, brain, and heart health,” Dr Chew explained.

Omega-3 supplements are available over the counter and often labelled as supporting brain health. A large 2011 study found that omega-3 supplements did not improve the brain health of older patients with pre-existing heart disease.

With AREDS2, Dr Chew and her team saw another opportunity to investigate the possible cognitive benefits of omega-3 supplements, she said. All participants had early or intermediate AMD. They were 72 years old on average and 58% were female. They were randomly assigned to one of four groups: placebo; omega-3; lutein and zeaxanthin; and, omega-3 and Lutein/zeaxanthin.

No combination of nutritional supplements made a difference in cognitive tests

Participants were given cognitive function tests at the beginning of the study to establish a baseline, then at two and four years later. The tests, all validated and used in previous cognitive function studies, included eight parts designed to test immediate and delayed recall, attention and memory, and processing speed. The cognition scores of each subgroup decreased to a similar extent over time, indicating that no combination of nutritional supplements made a difference.

“The AREDS2 data add to our efforts to understand the relationship between dietary components and Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline,” said Lenore Launer, Ph.D. senior investigator in the Laboratory of Epidemiology and Population Science at the National Institute on Aging. “It may be, for example, that the timing of nutrients, or consuming them in a certain dietary pattern, has an impact. More research would be needed to see if dietary patterns or taking the supplements earlier in the development of diseases like Alzheimer’s would make a difference.”

The study findings are published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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