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Fish Oil Supplements Boost Memory

DHA Supplements Help Stave Off ‘Senior Moments’
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

July 13, 2009 (Vienna, Austria) -- Omega-3 fatty acid supplements may boost memory in healthy aging adults.

In a new study, people 55 and older with age-related memory complaints who took the fatty acid supplements for six months had almost double the reduction in errors on a test that measures learning and memory skills, compared with those who took a placebo.

“The benefit is roughly equivalent to having the learning and memory skills of someone three years younger,” says researcher Karin Yurko-Mauro, PhD, associate director of clinical research at Martek Biosciences Corporation.

But the supplements do not appear to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease in people who already have mild to moderate symptoms of the disorder, a second study shows.

Both studies were presented at the Alzheimer’s Association 2009 International Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease.

DHA Boosts Memory

Previous studies have shown that people who eat a lot of fatty fish score better on memory tests and are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Animal research credited docosahexanoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid that’s abundant in fatty fish and algae.

But most people don’t eat enough fish to reap DHA’s benefits, Yurko-Mauro says. So she and colleagues put DHA supplements derived from algae to the test, pitting them against a placebo in 485 healthy people with an average age of 70.

Participants had mild memory complaints that often occur with age, such as forgetting names or appointments. They were randomly assigned to take supplements containing either 900 milligrams of DHA or placebo, once a day for six months.

At the start and end of the study, participants were given a memory test in which they were asked to look at patterns on a computer screen and later recall where each pattern was on the screen.

It’s almost like playing a video game, Yurko-Mauro says. Everyone improves over time, as they become more familiar with the technique. But people who took DHA improved more.

At the start of the study, people in both groups made an average of about 13 out of 30 possible errors on the test. Afterward, those given the placebo made an average of 2.4 fewer errors. In contrast, those given DHA supplements made an average of 4.5 fewer errors.

Blood levels of DHA doubled over the course of the study in people taking the supplements, and the higher a person’s DHA level, the better the score on the test.

The supplements didn’t cause any serious side effects.

William Thies, PhD, chief medical and scientific officer at the Alzheimer’s Association, says that pending future research confirming the findings, the Alzheimer’s Association isn’t ready to recommend that people take supplements to fend off age-related memory loss.

“But DHA is available, and people will make their own decisions,” he tells WebMD.

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