Cognitive decline is not just a normal part of aging. Alzheimer’s disease is a growing health crisis that has massive implications for the future of society. Worldwide, the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease is expected to quadruple by the year 2050, so that 1 in 85 people will be dealing with the condition, 43 percent of whom are expected to need high levels of care, such as that provided by a nursing home.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, but it is not the only one. Cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases, such as those caused by hypertension and diabetes, significantly contribute to the risk of non-Alzheimer’s dementia. According to the National Institute on Aging, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are public health crises on par with cancer and heart disease based on their cost to society2. In 2010 figures, the total monetary cost per individual with dementia was nearly $50,000 per year. Medicaid picked up the tab for $11 billion dollars’ worth of dementia care in 2010, a number that can only be expected to increase.
We can’t sit by and ignore a looming public health crisis of this magnitude. Fortunately, researchers have been working on non-drug treatments that may be effective in delaying the impact of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
A recent study by the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative found a strong link between high-dose fish oil and improved scores on cognitive ability tests. It was a retrospective study using 229 cognitively normal individuals, 397 patients with mild cognitive impairment, and 193 patients with Alzheimer’s disease, followed for up to 4 years (a total of 819 subjects, aged 55-90 years). All were assessed with neuropsychological tests and brain magnetic resonance imaging every 6 months.
The study was the first to examine the link between fish oil supplementation, conservation of brain volume and cognitive abilities across a spectrum of normal aging and neurodegeneration. In the study, each of the three groups (the cognitively normal, mildly cognitively impaired and those with Alzheimer’s) were taking different amounts of fish oil supplementation as a baseline.
Fish oil supplementation found improved cognitive scores on the Alzheimer’s Disease Assessment Scale at follow ups 6-48 months later. Fish oil use was also associated with less brain atrophy.
Another positive and surprising finding was that fish oil supplementation appeared to increase brain volume in both the hippocampus and in the cerebral cortex gray matter. These results were then confirmed by brain imaging.
However, it’s worth noting that the improvements in cognitive function and brain volume was only applicable to those who were cognitively normal or had mild cognitive impairment at the beginning of the study. Those who were already diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at the outset did not see the same improvements.
These findings suggest that timing is crucial when it comes to using fish oil supplementation to prevent or reverse early cognitive decline. Once that window has passed and a patient has active dementia, it does not appear to be reversible. By the time Alzheimer’s disease is present and diagnosable, years of damage have already occurred.
It is important to obtain high quality, pure fish oil and to consult with your health care provider about the appropriate dosage.
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