Omega-3 may boost brain health in people with a common heart disease

By American Heart Association News

Tom Werner/DigitalVision, Getty Images
(Tom Werner/DigitalVision, Getty Images)

Omega-3 fatty acids have drawn attention for their potential to keep people's thinking sharp as they age, and new research appears to support that notion for some heart patients.

The study found taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements was associated with better brain function in people with coronary artery disease, which increases risk for dementia.

The study included 250 people with coronary artery disease. For 30 months, half took omega-3 supplements; the other half served as a control group. The group taking the supplements had better coordination, reaction speed, memory and recall at one year and at 30 months, compared to the control group.

"Other researchers have looked at omega-3 fatty acids in people who already have cognitive impairment or dementia," said Dr. Francine Welty, a cardiologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston and one of the study's investigators. "But the people we looked at were cognitively healthy, and we found there may be a benefit from omega-3 fatty acids before cognitive decline begins."

Welty's colleague, Dr. Bhavya Vemuri, will present the preliminary findings Saturday at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions in Philadelphia.

Omega-3 fatty acids help build cell membranes throughout the body and play an important role in heart function. The body needs them to function but doesn't make them. The only way to get omega-3 fatty acids is by eating foods such as fish, vegetable oils, nuts, flaxseed and leafy vegetables or by taking dietary supplements that contain fish oil, although experts agree people should talk with their doctor before starting a supplement.

Coronary artery disease, also known as coronary heart disease, is the most common form of heart disease in the U.S., affecting about 16.5 million Americans. It occurs when plaque – a collection of fat, cholesterol and other substances – builds up inside the walls of the coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart. Because the plaque can block blood flow, people with coronary artery disease are at high risk for a heart attack.

Dementia encompasses all the diseases and disorders that cause abnormal brain changes. The changes to the brain can affect thinking skills, behavior and a person's ability to live independently and carry out daily tasks. Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia.

Previous studies have found coronary artery disease is a risk factor for dementia. This is thought to be because heart disease reduces blood flow to the brain. Also, studies have shown plaque buildup can lead to both coronary artery disease and dementia. This type of dementia is called vascular dementia.

Welty said she and her team used the highest Food and Drug Administration-approved dose of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil.

"It's really surprising that in 30 months you see that the people who took omega-3 fatty acids did not see a decline in cognitive function and actually saw benefits, compared to those who did not take them," said Penny Kris-Etherton, a specialist in cardiovascular nutrition at Penn State University in the College of Health and Human Development.

"This is just one study, and I'd want to see the results reproduced," said Kris-Etherton, who was not involved with the research. "But it does tell us that at this level, omega-3 fatty acids might confer some cognitive benefit."

Find more news from Scientific Sessions.

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