Supplements and Their Role in Maintaining Cognitive Function in Old Age

~ May 2005 No.193 ~

It is the fear of every baby boomer. As we age the question arises: “Am I as sharp as I was when I was younger?” Young people appear to be able to think faster and remember more. The image of an aged relative not able to remember names or dates haunts us all. Are we all headed that way

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A recent study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports that people who consumed fish oil supplements (containing n-3 fatty acids) during their life may have higher cognitive function scores than those that did not. The tests given are used to predict functional capacity in dementia, and are used to measure cognitive aging and Alzheimer disease. The IQ scores of the fish oil supplement seniors was higher, but not statistically higher, than seniors who did not have a history of consuming fish oil supplements.

n-3 fatty acids are most commonly found in fish oils. Members of the n-3 fatty acid family include linolenic acid (18:3 n-3), eicosapentanoic acid or EPA (20:5 n-3), docosapentanoic acid (22:5 n-3) and docosahexanoic acid or DHA (22:6 n-3). People consuming the fish oil supplement had higher blood levels of the long chain fatty acids EPA and DHA.

The dietary assessment of the seniors included in this study was done using a food-frequency questionnaire, and therefore was based on information given by the study subjects. In the study, supplement users and non-users did not have significantly different nutrient intake patterns - their intakes of carbohydrates, lipids, protein sugars were the same. Interestingly, women were more likely to have a history of consuming supplements than men. People consuming fish oil supplements also had higher intakes of vitamin C, vegetables and cereal fiber. Because of this, it was difficult to attribute all of the improvement in cognitive function solely to the fish oil supplement.

Many health groups recommend increased consumption of n-3 fatty acids to maintain good cardiovascular health. The results of this study provide reasons for increasing these fatty acids in the diet. The study also shows that taking supplements may be a way of ensuring an adequate intake of helpful nutrients. In seniors, where appetite is often low, and food intake reduced, this may be important. However, because supplements supply high levels of nutrients, their role in the total diet needs to be established.

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Last modified

March 13 2016