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A study of older adults at risk of Alzheimer’s disease found that those who consumed more omega-3 fatty acids did better than their peers on tests of cognitive flexibility, which is the ability to efficiently switch between tasks.

Researchers at the University of Illinois also found that those who consumed more omega-3 fatty acids had a bigger anterior cingulate cortex, a brain region known to contribute to cognitive flexibility.

According to the study, which was published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, the analysis suggests — but does not prove — that consuming DHA and EPA, two omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, enhanced cognitive flexibility in these adults in part by beefing up the anterior cingulate cortex.

“Recent research suggests that there is a critical link between nutritional deficiencies and the incidence of both cognitive impairment and degenerative neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease,” said University of Illinois neuroscience, psychology, and speech and hearing science professor Aron Barbey, who led the study with M.D./Ph.D. student Marta Zamroziewicz.

“Our findings add to the evidence that optimal nutrition helps preserve cognitive function, slow the progression of aging, and reduce the incidence of debilitating diseases in healthy aging populations.”

The researchers focused on aspects of brain function that are sometimes overlooked in research on aging, according to Zamroziewicz.

“A lot of work in cognitive aging focuses on memory but, in fact, cognitive flexibility and other executive functions have been shown to better predict daily functioning than memory does,” she said.

Executive function describes processes like planning, reasoning, paying attention, problem solving, impulse control, and task switching, she explained. “These functions tend to decline earlier than other cognitive functions in aging,” she added.

The new research built on previous studies that found associations between omega-3 fatty acid consumption, cognitive flexibility and the size of the anterior cingulate cortex, according to the scientists.

“There’s been some work to show that omega-3 fatty acids benefit cognitive flexibility, and there’s also been work showing that cognitive flexibility is linked to this specific brain region, the anterior cingulate. But there’s been very little work actually connecting these pieces,” Zamroziewicz said.

The new study focused on 40 cognitively healthy older adults between the ages of 65 and 75 who are carriers of a gene variant (APOE e4) that is known to contribute to the risk of developing late-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

The researchers tested cognitive flexibility, measured levels of the fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) in their blood, and imaged their brains using MRI. Statistical analyses teased out the relationships between these factors, the researchers noted.

“We wanted to confirm that higher omega-3 fatty acids related to better cognitive flexibility, and we did in fact see that,” Zamroziewicz said.

“We also wanted to confirm that higher omega-3 fatty acids related to higher volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, and we saw that. Finally, we were able to show that higher volume in the anterior cingulate cortex was an intermediary in the relationship between omega-3 fatty acids and cognitive flexibility.”

Source: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign