Dr. Day is a cardiologist/electrophysiologist at the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah. He graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School and completed his residency and fellowships in cardiology and electrophysiology at Stanford University. He is the former president of the Heart Rhythm Society and currently serves as the president of the Utah chapter of the American College of Cardiology.
Foods to Prevent Dementia and Strokes
Most of my patients fear dementia and strokes even more than death. Fortunately, dementia and strokes can largely be prevented. In this article, I share the latest research on omega 3 foods to prevent dementia and strokes.
Three Types of Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Before we review this new study, let me first introduce you to the three types of omega 3 fatty acids. The first is the plant-based omega 3, also known as ALA or alpha linolenic acid. ALA is found in walnuts, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, soy beans, cruciferous vegetables, and berries. The other two omega 3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, come primarily from oily fish.
Foods to Prevent Dementia and Strokes Study
In a recent study of 286 people, Dr. Martha Clare Morris and colleagues from Rush University in Chicago reported their findings on omega 3 foods to prevent dementia and strokes. When these 286 people signed up to participate in this study, none of them had dementia or a stroke.
Each year, Rush University researchers checked in with these 286 people to see what they were eating. Then, after they died, researchers got the opportunity to autopsy their brains.
Here are their five main findings:
1. Eating fish weekly prevented Alzheimer plaques and nerve tangles.
2. Fish was most beneficial for those with a family history of Alzheimer’s Disease.
3. Omega 3s from plants prevented strokes.
4. Fish oil did not prevent Alzheimer’s Disease or strokes.
5. Increased mercury levels from fish did not cause dementia or strokes.
Family History of Alzheimer’s Disease and Fish
This study offers tremendous hope for people with a family history of Alzheimer’s Disease. Indeed, those with the ApoE4 Alzheimer’s gene seemed to benefit the most from oily fish. To learn more about how to prevent Alzheimer’s Disease, please read my article, “How to Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease” (blog #90).
95% of Americans are Deficient in Omega 3
Odds are that you are deficient in omega 3. While there are no official government recommendations yet on the daily amount of omega 3 you need, studies suggest that Americans only get 5% to 10% of the omega 3s their brains need each day. Fortunately, by focussing on omega 3 foods, this nutritional deficiency can easily be corrected.
Is Mercury Still a Concern with Fish?
Unfortunately, media reports of mercury in fish have scared away many people, including pregnant mothers, from this brain food. In the case of pregnancy, any possible mercury risk should be balanced against new research suggesting that mom’s who eat fish have much smarter kids.
The biggest and longest-lived fish, like tuna, swordfish, king mackerel, and shark, have the highest levels of mercury. It was reassuring to read in this study that mercury levels in the brain had absolutely no relationship to Alzheimer’s Disease or strokes.
Fish lowest in mercury include salmon, anchovies, sardines, oysters, and scallops. To see where your favorite fish falls on the mercury scale, there is an excellent table of 67 different fish on this webpage. Also, eating selenium rich foods may provide an added layer of protection.
Does selenium prevent mercury toxicity?
The antioxidant, selenium, is an antidote to mercury toxicity. Selenium, in the right amount, may also prevent heart disease, cancer, and thyroid problems. Fortunately, ocean fish are high in selenium so there is already natural protection packed within the fish.
If you are a fish eater, and want to make sure you are fully protected, eat one Brazil nut daily to top off your selenium levels. This is something I have been doing for years.
When it comes to selenium, nothing is higher than Brazil nuts. However, you don’t want to go overboard with selenium as too much selenium is also toxic. Perhaps this explains why researchers observed that those brains with too much selenium in this study had more nerve tangles.
Strategies for Fish Haters and Vegetarians
Not everyone likes fish. This was me for most of my life. Even though I still don’t love fish, I have learned to tolerate it at least once weekly.
Also, many people do not eat meat due to religious, moral, or environmental concerns. If this is you, what should you do to protect your brain from Alzheimer’s Disease?
Unfortunately, fish oil offered no protection in this study. For those who either don’t like fish or are vegetarians, I have three suggestions.
1. Eat more ALA, the plant-based omega 3 fatty acid, to boost DHA and EPA levels. Thankfully, about 15% of ALA can be converted by the body to DHA and EPA.
2. Get DHA and EPA omega 3s from the same source that fish do. Indeed, some studies show that omega 3s from marine algae may help to prevent cardiovascular disease.
3. Focus on other brain foods. As discussed in blog number 135, there are brain foods other than just the omega 3s.
Seven Benefits of Omega 3s
Why are the omega 3s so important for health? The omega 3 fatty acids are a critical component to the membranes of every cell in your body. Also, omega 3s are essential for the hormones controlling blood clotting, arteries, and inflammation. Below are seven reasons why you need to eat foods high in omega 3 every day.
1. Optimize Brain Function
Omega 3 fatty acids may enhance brain function at any age. They appear to play an important role in memory, information transfer, and the development of new neuron connections.
2. Prevents Fatal Arrhythmias
Cardiac arrests remain the number one cause of death in the U.S. Cardiac arrests can even strike young, otherwise healthy people. Fortunately, studies show that people who eat foods high in omega 3 fatty acids are much less likely to suffer a cardiac arrest.
3. Prevents Cancer
Omega 3s may help to prevent cancer. We aren’t quite sure why the risk of cancer is reduced with omega 3s but it likely has something to do with lowering inflammation in the body.
4. Prevents Inflammation, Arthritis, and Autoimmune Diseases
Historically, our ancestors ate far more omega 3 foods than we do today. As omega 3 containing foods are anti-inflammatory, this is one possible reason why autoimmune diseases are much more common today. Getting enough omega 3s may also help to reverse arthritis.
5. Lowers Blood Pressure
As there is a 90% chance that you will develop high blood pressure, omega 3s may help to decrease this risk. Indeed, when researchers looked at 31 studies on omega 3 fatty acids and blood pressure, they found that omega 3s lowered systolic blood pressure by an average of 3 mmHg. While this may not seem like much, when you consider that the average blood pressure medication only lowers systolic blood pressure by 8 mmHg, this isn’t so bad.
6. Lowers Triglycerides
Omega 3 fatty acids are very effective in reducing triglycerides. Elevated triglycerides is an important cause of heart attacks. To learn more about omega 3 fatty acids and triglycerides, please read blog #90 on fish oil.
7. Prevents Depression
Many studies have linked low levels of omega 3 to depression. While we still aren’t quite sure why people who are deficient in omega 3 are at high risk for depression, it likely has something to do with inflammation.
Does the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 in the diet matter?
You may have come across health books or internet sites discussing the importance of getting the right ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids in your foods. While earlier studies suggested that this may matter, more recent data refutes these claims.
So what should you do? As long as you are limiting processed foods and eating something high in the omega 3 fatty acids everyday, there is no need to calculate your omega 6 to omega 3 ratio.
The Main Thing You Need to Know About Omega 3s
The message of this article is really quite simple. To lower your risk of dementia and stroke, make sure you eat oily fish weekly and get a daily dose of the plant-based omega 3s like walnuts, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, soy beans, cruciferous vegetables, and berries.
How do you get your omega 3s? Please share your experiences in the comment section below. Also, if you have any questions about this article, leave your comments below. I will do my best to answer every question.
Disclaimer Policy: This website is intended to give general information and does not provide medical advice. This website does not create a doctor-patient relationship between you and Dr. John Day. If you have a medical problem, immediately contact your healthcare provider. Information on this website is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Dr. John Day is not responsible for any losses, damages or claims that may result from your medical decisions.