Should Vegans Take DHA to Preserve Brain Function?

About half the dry weight of our brain is fat. Lower levels of the long-chain omega-3 fat DHA in some areas of Alzheimer’s brains got people thinking that perhaps DHA is protective. Since the level of DHA in the brain tends to correlate with the level of DHA in the blood, cross-sectional studies of dementia and pre-dementia patients have been done. The result? The dementia and pre-dementia subjects do tend to have lower levels of both long-chain omega-3s, EPA and DHA, circulating in their bloodstream. This doesn’t necessarily mean that lower omega-3 levels cause cognitive impairment, however. It was just a snapshot in time, so we don’t know which came first. As I discuss in my video below, maybe the dementia led to a dietary deficiency, rather than a dietary deficiency leading to dementia.

What we need is to measure long-chain omega-3 levels at the beginning and then follow people over time, and, indeed, there may be a slower rate of cognitive decline in those who start out with higher levels. We can actually see the difference on MRI. Thousands of older men and women had their levels checked and were scanned and then re-scanned. The brains of those with higher levels looked noticeably healthier five years later.

The size of our brain actually shrinks as we get older, starting around age 20. Between ages 16 and 80, our brain loses about 1 percent of its volume every two to three years, such that by the time we’re in our 70s, our brain has lost 26 percent of its size and ends up smaller than that of 2- to 3-year-old children.

As we age, our ability to make long-chain omega-3s like DHA from short-chain omega-3s in plant foods, such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and greens, may decline. Researchers compared DHA levels to brain volumes in the famed Framingham Study and found that lower DHA levels were associated with smaller brain volumes, but this was just from a snapshot in time, so more information was needed. A subsequent study was published that found that higher EPA and DHA levels correlated with larger brain volume eight years later. While normal aging results in overall brain shrinkage, having lower levels of long-chain omega-3s may signal increased risk. The only thing we’d now need to prove cause and effect is a randomized controlled trial showing we can actually slow brain loss by giving people extra long-chain omega-3s, but the trials to date showed no cognitive benefits from supplementation…until now.

A “double-blind randomized interventional study provide[d] first-time evidence that [extra long-chain omega-3s] exert positive effects on brain functions in healthy older adults,” a significant improvement in executive function after six and a half months of supplementation, and significantly less brain shrinkage compared to placebo. This kind of gray matter shrinkage in the placebo might be considered just normal brain aging, but it was significantly slowed in the supplementation group. The researchers also described changes in the white matter of the brain, increased fractional anisotropy, and decreases in mean and radial diffusivity—terms I’ve never heard before but evidently imply greater structural integrity.

So, we know that having sufficient long-chain omega-3s EPA and DHA may be important for preserving brain function and structure, but what’s “sufficient” and how do we get there? The Framingham Study found what appears to be a threshold value around an omega-3 index of 4.4, which is a measure of our EPA and DHA levels. Having more or much more than 4.4 didn’t seem to matter, but having less was associated with accelerated brain loss equivalent to about an extra two years of brain aging, which comes out to about a teaspoon less of brain matter, so it’s probably good to have an omega-3 index over 4.4.

The problem is that people who don’t eat fish may be under 4.4. Nearly two-thirds of vegans may fall below 4.0, suggesting a substantial number of vegans have an omega-3 status associated with accelerated brain aging. The average American just exceeds the threshold at about 4.5, though if we age- and gender-match with the vegans, ironically, the omnivores do just as bad. There aren’t a lot of long-chain omega-3s in Big Macs either, but having a nutrient status no worse than those eating the Standard American Diet is not saying much.

What we need is a study that gives those with such low levels some pollutant-free EPA and DHA, and then sees how much it takes to push people past the threshold…and here we go: Phase 2 of the study gave algae-derived EPA and DHA to those eating vegan diets with levels under 4.0. About 250mg a day took them from an average of 3.1 over the threshold to 4.8 within four months. This is why I recommend everyone consider eating a plant-based diet along with contaminant-free EPA and DHA to get the best of both worlds—omega-3 levels associated with brain preservation while minimizing exposure to toxic pollutants.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations—2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet, and my latest, 2016: How Not to Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.

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61 comments

Marie W
Marie W3 months ago

Thank you.

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Dennis Hall
Dennis H9 months ago

NUTRASEA fish oil has omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. It is certified to be harvested sustainably and is the best choice available, thus far, for getting these nutrients -- the smallest eco-footprint. Oil does not taste fishy at all; the one with real lemon flavour is delish -- makes a salad POP!

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Latoya B
Latoya Brookins9 months ago

I think vegans have very high brain function in comparison to those eating animal carcasses but we can all find ways to boost ourselves.

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Danuta W
Danuta W9 months ago

thank you for posting

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Nicole H
Nicole Heindryckx9 months ago

Well I must admit that this is totally new for me. And probably for the most of us. So before commenting on this article, I will try to find additional information on this matter, and not only from this doctor. There must be thousands of "brain" doctors who are doing research on this matter.
But again, as it always is the case, certain products we eat or do not eat only reveal after 20 or 30 years that some risks apparently are involved. So I first will do my homework, and hope to be back.

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Janis K
Janis K9 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Kathy G
Kathy G9 months ago

Thank you

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Leo C
Leo C9 months ago

Thank you for posting!

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Mark T
Mark Turner9 months ago

Ty.

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beba h
beba h9 months ago

Looks like I will have to put DHA on my list of supplements I buy. Thanks for the info.

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