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Key Takeaways

  • A high omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid intake may be detrimental to cognition in old age
  • The hippocampus is one of the first brain structures that undergoes age-related changes
  • Hippocampus atrophy (withering) is associated with cognitive decline. Spatial memory is among the first functions that worsen as a result
  • Having a lower dietary omega-6:3 fatty acid ratio predicts better cognitive function in general and hippocampus-dependent spatial memory in particular 

Actions to Consider

  • The average Westerner has a very high omega-6:3 fatty acid ratio in their diet. To lower it, consider reducing your omega-6 intake (poultry, fried food, processed meat, yeast bread, vegetable oil) and increasing your omega-3 intake (seafood, nuts and seeds, omega-3-fortified food)
  • Additionally, you can start taking an omega-3 fatty acid supplement, especially if you don’t like seafood and have a hard time meeting your daily omega-3 goal. For most people, a high-quality fish oil supplement is a perfect starting point
  • Have your omega-6:3 ratio regularly checked using an accurate over-the-counter test like the Brainspan Kit

Is the typical Western diet impairing cognition in the elderly?

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential nutrients that the human body needs for a wide range of vital processes.

The problem is that most people eat these nutrients in an extremely unhealthy ratio.

Now, there is evidence that the wrong omega-6:3 ratio may also impair cognitive performance in the elderly.

What is this study about?

Published in 2017 in the Neuropsychology journal, this study was performed on 52 healthy older adults. The participants completed a diet questionnaire, finished a cognitive assessment test, and went through a series of virtual navigation tasks that challenged their spatial memory. The goal was to unveil any statistically meaningful connection between the omega-6:3 intake ratio in the participants’ diet and their cognitive performance.

A quick reminder: how omega fatty acids work and why their ratio is important

Scientists believe that humans evolved on a 1:1 omega-6:3 ratio, meaning that they got roughly equal amounts of the two fatty acids. Today, the typical Western diet features a 15:1 to 16.7:1 ratio, with omega-6 being the predominant fatty acid.

Without going into too much detail, the body processes omega-6 fatty acids into mostly pro-inflammatory molecules that are essential for immunity. Omega-3 is transformed into anti-inflammatory compounds. Balancing these two processes is crucial for strong health.

A high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is associated with low-grade inflammation and an increased risk for many chronic conditions—including cognitive decline, apparently.

The results of this study, and what they mean for you

The authors of this study found that a lower omega-6 to omega-3 intake ratio was a strong predictor of better hippocampus-related spatial memory in the elderly. Participants with a lower ratio also learned faster and easier on the offered navigation tasks.

Does this mean that a high omega-6:3 directly causes memory impairment?

Not exactly, and not in all types of memory, but it sure seems to play a role.

At the very least, that would explain why some diets (like the Mediterranean diet) with a low omega-6:3 ratio are associated with a decreased risk of cognitive impairment.

Conclusion

The list of potential health benefits of a lower omega-6 to omega-3 ratio increases with age, so it’s important to optimize your diet for this parameter and regularly have your levels tested.

After all, it’s relatively easy to fix with a few dietary changes or a quality, natural supplement.

If that will be enough to boost your health, cognition, and lifespan even just a bit – it’s worth it!

Link to study:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28394147

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