Are Omega-3 & B Vitamins the Dynamic Duo for Dementia Prevention?
There are many factors that increase a person’s risk for dementia, such as age, but very few that are ‘disease modifying’. A risk factor such as age is obviously not modifiable. You can live to any age without getting Alzheimer’s. That means that Alzheimer’s is not a natural function of age. Age might ‘predict’ increased risk but it tells you nothing about how to prevent it.
The difference between no evidence of effect and evidence of no effect
‘Disease-modifying’ means that there is evidence that if you change it – stop smoking, do more exercise, eat better, lose weight, lower your blood pressure and so on – your risk goes down. Sometimes there is effectively no evidence. In other words the studies haven’t been done yet. Sometimes the studies have been done and have not shown a significant effect. Lowering high blood pressure is an example. The most recent drug trial, aggressively lowering blood pressure, showed no significant effect.
But that doesn’t mean that lowering blood pressure by other means isn’t worth investigating. It is entirely probable that the very things that raise blood pressure in the first place – a high sugar diet, lack of omega-3, high homocysteine levels, lack of antioxidants including magnesium, lack of exercise, stress and insomnia – might be the real underlying reason contributors to high blood pressure in the first place. A study targeting these factors in order to reduce high blood pressure would be well worth doing.
The most evidence-based disease modifying risk factors
At Food for the Brain we focus on the most evidence-based disease modifying risk factors bearing in mind that there are risk factors that don’t yet have enough evidence of a positive effect, but are contenders. We also consider how common the risk factor is, how much of total risk for dementia is attributed to it and how easy is it to change.
|Risk Factor||Prevalence (%)||% of AD attributed to risk factor (PAR%)||Ease of changing||Evidence for effect|
|High homocysteine level, lowered by B vitamins||30||22%||Yes||Strong|
|Low fish & omega-3 intake||49||22%||Yes||Moderate|
|Low physical activity||34||22%||Moderate||Moderate|
|Low intake of polyphenol rich foods||75||up to 20%||Yes||Weak|
|Mid-life high blood pressure||12||7%||Moderate||Weak|
|Diabetes and pre-diabetes||5||2%||Moderate||Weak|
|Low educational attainment||24||12%||Difficult, long-term||Weak|
Of all these disease-modifiable risk factors for Alzheimer’s dementia the top two, right now, are homocysteine lowering B vitamins and omega-3 or seafood intake. But where it gets really exciting is two new studies showing a synergistic effect of having optimal omega-3 and B vitamin intake. Before exploring this here’s the background of what we know so far regarding omega-3 fats, richest in seafood and also in walnuts, and also homocysteine lowering B vitamins.
Eating fish and walnuts is associated with better cognition and less Alzheimer’s risk
The omega-3 fat docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is the most abundant polyunsaturated fat in the brain, concentrated in the grey matter and synapses. DHA is incorporated into the membrane of brain cells (neurons) maintaining membrane fluidity. DHA, along with the other omega-3 fats (EPA and DPA) and their mediators are involved in a wide variety of processes in the brain, such as making neurons, making synaptic connections, and the regulation of inflammation .
Fish, especially cold-water oily fish, contain high levels of EPA and DHA and epidemiological studies consistently show that an elevated fish intake is associated with decreased risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease  One of the first studies, by Dr Martha Morris and colleagues at Chicago’s Rush Institute for Healthy Aging, eating fish once a week reduces your risk of developing Alzheimer’s by 60 per cent. Positive association have also been found between walnut consumption and cognitive performance. Walnuts are a source of the omega-3 fat alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and also contain a range of antioxidants. Recent estimates suggest that worldwide many populations are currently consuming DHA and EPA at levels well below the recommendations issued by many international authorities (GOED), with blood levels estimated to be low to very low for most of the world, which may increase global risk for chronic disease .
Omega-3 supplement studies show great promise for preventing dementia
A study of healthy 50-75 year olds were given 2,200mg a day of omega 3 fish oils for 6 months not only reported significant increase in executive functions, one aspect of cognition that is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s, but also beneficial structural changes in white matter integrity and grey matter volume in the brain. The cognitive improvement correlated with blood levels of omega-3.
A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, clinical study, gave 900mg of DHA a day for 24 weeks and reported an improvement in learning and memory function in those with age-related cognitive decline. In a further trial by the same research group, giving 2,000mg a day of DHA or placebo to 402 people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease, therefore further along the disease process, for a period of 18 months found no cognitive improvement.
These studies suggest that DHA may help prevent cognitive decline before the development of Alzheimer’s, but don’t help arrest or slow down Alzheimer’s per se. But why exactly might fish have this protective effect? One theory is that it helps to ease brain inflammation, which, in turn damages brain cells. Omega-3 fats are also a vital component of brain cell membranes. Seafood is also rich in other nutrients, notably vitamin B12, essential for lowering homocysteine and methylation (see below), iodine, vital for thyroid function, and the antioxidant selenium.
Homocysteine lowering B vitamins slow brain shrinkage and halt cognitive decline
B vitamins, especially vitamin B6, folate (found in greens) and vitamin B12, which is only found in animal produce, are essential for a process called methylation. Homocysteine accumulates, and is measurable in the blood, if a person is lacking in vitamin B6, folate or B12 and, to a lesser extent, the mineral zinc. This happens because these nutrients are required methylation which, among other things, is essential to build brain cells. There are a billion methylation reactions every few seconds.
Homocysteine, above 11mcmol/l, is perhaps the best blood marker of Alzheimer’s risk being found in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s. Is is toxic to brain cells and when homocysteine goes up so too does amyloid and p t’au proteins. So, it is entirely plausible that lack of B vitamins is driving the pathology in Alzheimer’s. Much of this is associated with age-related decline in ability to absorb vitamin B12, perhaps made worse by polypharmacy (antacid, diabetic and hypertensive drugs). An estimated 70% of people over 70 have raised homocysteine levels.
Where’s the evidence? For the full story read ‘The H Factor – why lowering homocysteine with B vitamins is key’ . A randomised placebo controlled trial at the University of Oxford, led by Professor David Smith, who is a member of our Scientific Advisory Board, of those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI or pre-dementia) found that those participants with raised homocysteine levels, given high dose B vitamins (B6 20mg, B12 500mcg, folic acid 800mcg), had 53% less brain shrinkage in one year compared to those given placebos. They also had virtually no further cognitive decline. In addition, there was almost nine times less shrinkage in the areas of the brain associated with Alzheimer’s.
B vitamins found not to work without sufficient omega-3 and vice versa
When Fredrik Jerneren, a member of Professor Smith’s research group, re-analysed the results, but splitting the participants into those in the top third for blood pevels of omega-3, versus those in the bottom third, there was a 73% decrease in rate of brain shrinkage, bring their level of brain shrinkage down to that seen in healthy elderly who do not develop dementia.
Also, at the end of the trial, participants were re-evaluation for clinical signs of dementia and 30% had a clinical dementia rating of zero!
However, those whose blood level of omega-3 was in the lowest third had benefit from the B vitamins.
This finding led another trial called B-proof – that had tested the effects of B vitamins on cognitive function in adults over 65 with high homocysteine and found only modest reduction in the rate of decline of global cognition – to test the omega-3 status of the participants from frozen blood samples they had taken at the start of the trial to investigate whether those with higher omega-3 blood levels had more improvement in cognition. They did. Or more specifically, the higher the omega-3 DHA level the greater was the improvement in cognition. In this study cognition still improved overall in all three groups – those with highest, medium or lowest omega-3 (EPA+DHA), but improved more in the group with the highest omega-3 DHA than the middle or low DHA fraction. The overall interaction between B-vitamin supplementation and DHA status was significant. This finding was published is 2022 in the European Journal of Nutrition.
To further test this principle, Fredrik Jerneren from Oxford was given access to the blood tests of another trial called OmegAD, this time giving omega-3 fish oils, which had shown little effect despite the participants being given a hefty 2.3 grams a day, equivalent to two large capsules. Could faulty methylation, a result of lack of B vitamins, be the reason for the omega-3 not working? The researchers had measured homocysteine, a high level of which means faulty methylation, usually due to a lack of B vitamins. Jerneren split the participants into thirds – from the lowest to highest level of homocysteine. Those given omega-3 with the lowest homocysteine, in other words able to do the vital methylation process that attaches omega-3 DHA into brain cell membranes, had a highly significant improvement in their clinical dementia rating while those with high homocysteine had no benefit at all. [Chart used with permission of Dr Fredrik Jerneren]
Another trial, this time in China, gave those with pre-dementia either the B vitamin folate, or omega-3 DHA or both, or placebo. Only those given both the B vitamin and the omega-3 DHA had significant improvement.
Another large-scale omega-3 trial (MAPT) that had found no effect re-analysed their results and found a significant effect on aspects of cognition in only those with lower homocysteine levels (thus sufficient in B vitamins). Also, those with high homocysteine had signifcant worsening on a measure of cognition after 5 years compared to those with lower homocysteine levels.
Why omega-3 DHA and B vitamins are required to build the brain
Fish and fish oils contain two types of omega-3 fat – EPA and DHA. EPA can convert into DHA. While EPA has many beneficial health effects, for example in reducing inflammation, cardiovascular disease risk and depression, only DHA is needed as a structural fat in the membrane of neurons (brain cells) where is accounts for over 90% of the structural fat.
This discovery, now shown in two trials, that having enough omega-3 DHA enhances the effect of B vitamins and that B vitamins are less effective in the people with low omega-3 DHA, makes complete sense of what we know about how the critical membrane of neurons (brain cells) are made.
Neurons are actually made out of a membrane of omega-3 (DHA) stuck to phospholipids (eggs and fish being the richest dietary source), and the binding of the two depends on a processes called methylation, itself dependent on B vitamins (see diagram below).
In other words, you cannot build brain cells without both sufficient omega-3 DHA and sufficient B vitamins to ensure that the process of methylation, which binds the DHA into the membrane structure, is working efficiently. Raised blood homocysteine is the best indicator of faulty methylation.
Phospholipids may be important too
Phospholipids may be important too since the neuronal membrane is ultimate made of ‘phosphorylated DHA’ – phospholipids bound to DHA. Phosphatidylserine (PS), a phospholipid, has been found to be low in post-mortem samples from Alzheimer’s disease patients Interestingly, phosphatidylserine supplementation may benefit cognition in the elderly  but as PS is highly enriched with DHA it is currently unclear whether the potential beneficial effects of PS on cognition are due to the phospholipid part or DHA. Higher plasma concentrations of PC-DHA are associated with reduced risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s, and post mortem samples from Alzheimer’s patients show depletion of PC-DHA in grey matter.
Unlike omega-3 DHA, which is an essential nutrient, phospholipid can be made in the body classifying them as semi-essential. We still need to achieve enough from diet, with fish and eggs being the richest source. Those on a vegan or strictly plant-based diet struggle to achieve enough. There are small amounts only in broccoli and almonds. However, phosphatidyl choline, the main phospholipid in the brain, is present in soya-derived lecithin. Lecithin, in capsules and granules, is wide available in health food stores.
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