PITTSBURGH, Aug. 4, 2014 - Eating baked or broiled fish once a week is good for the brain, regardless of how much omega-3 fatty acid it contains, according to researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. The findings, published online recently in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, add to growing evidence that lifestyle factors contribute to brain health later in life.
Scientists estimate that more than 80 million people will have dementia by 2040, which could become a substantial burden to families and drive up health care costs, noted senior investigator James T. Becker, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, Pitt School of Medicine. Some studies have predicted that lifestyle changes such as a reduction in rates of physical inactivity, smoking and obesity could lead to fewer cases of Alzheimer's disease and other conditions of cognitive impairment in the elderly. The anti-oxidant effect of omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in high amounts in fish, seeds and nuts, and certain oils, also have been associated with improved health, particularly brain health.
"Our study shows that people who ate a diet that included baked or broiled, but not fried, fish have larger brain volumes in regions associated with memory and cognition," Dr. Becker said. "We did not find a relationship between omega-3 levels and these brain changes, which surprised us a little. It led us to conclude that we were tapping into a more general set of lifestyle factors that were affecting brain health of which diet is just one part."
Lead investigator Cyrus Raji, M.D., Ph.D., who now is in radiology residency training at UCLA, and the research team analyzed data from 260 people who provided information on their dietary intake, had high-resolution brain MRI scans, and were cognitively normal at two time points during their participation in the Cardiovascular Health Study (CHS), a 10-year multicenter effort that began in 1989 to identify risk factors for heart disease in people over 65.
"The subset of CHS participants answered questionnaires about their eating habits, such as how much fish did they eat and how was it prepared," Dr. Raji said. "Baked or broiled fish contains higher levels of omega-3s than fried fish because the fatty acids are destroyed in the high heat of frying, so we took that into consideration when we examined their brain scans."
People who ate baked or broiled fish at least once a week had greater grey matter brain volumes in areas of the brain responsible for memory (4.3 percent) and cognition (14 percent) and were more likely to have a college education than those who didn't eat fish regularly, the researchers found. But no association was found between the brain differences and blood levels of omega-3s.
"This suggests that lifestyle factors, in this case eating fish, rather than biological factors contribute to structural changes in the brain," Dr. Becker noted. "A confluence of lifestyle factors likely are responsible for better brain health, and this reserve might prevent or delay cognitive problems that can develop later in life."
Co-authors include Kirk I. Erickson, Ph.D., Oscar Lopez, M.D., Lewis H. Kuller, M.D., Dr.P.H., and H. Michael Gach, Ph.D., all of the University of Pittsburgh; Paul M. Thompson, Ph.D., of the University of Southern California; and Mario Riverol, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain.
The research reported in this article was supported in part by contracts HC-85239, HC-85079 through HC-85086, HC-35129, HC-15103, HC-55222, HC-75150, HC-45133, and grant HL080295 from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), with additional contribution from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Additional support was provided through AG-023629, AG-15928, AG-20098, AG-027002, AG05133, and AG- 027058 from the National Institute on Aging (NIA).
About the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine
As one of the nation's leading academic centers for biomedical research, the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine integrates advanced technology with basic science across a broad range of disciplines in a continuous quest to harness the power of new knowledge and improve the human condition. Driven mainly by the School of Medicine and its affiliates, Pitt has ranked among the top 10 recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health since 1998. In rankings recently released by the National Science Foundation, Pitt ranked fifth among all American universities in total federal science and engineering research and development support.
Likewise, the School of Medicine is equally committed to advancing the quality and strength of its medical and graduate education programs, for which it is recognized as an innovative leader, and to training highly skilled, compassionate clinicians and creative scientists well-equipped to engage in world-class research. The School of Medicine is the academic partner of UPMC, which has collaborated with the University to raise the standard of medical excellence in Pittsburgh and to position health care as a driving force behind the region's economy. For more information about the School of Medicine, see http://www.