Published on October 13, 2015

Omega-3 supplements: the fish (oil) that got away?Omega-3 supplements: the fish (oil) that got away?

Millions of Americans follow a daily ritual of lining up nutritional supplements to add to their morning dietary intake. These pills, which come in various shapes and sizes, are said to promote everything from balanced health, increased energy, weight loss, bone growth, heart health and muscle tone.

One of the most popular supplements is over-the-counter Omega-3, also known as fish oil, which is purported to support brain health.

But a recent study shows that Omega- 3 supplements do not slow or stop the progress of cognitive decline in older adults.

The five-year study, led by Emily Chew, MD, at the National Institute of Health and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, examined the effects of nutritional supplements for slowing macular degeneration, a cause of blindness in older adults.

The average age of the 4,000 participants was 72, and 58 percent were female. They took cognitive function tests at the beginning of the study, then at two and four years later. They were tested for immediate and delayed recall, attention and memory, as well as processing speed.

The study investigated a combination of nutritional supplements for slowing macular degeneration. They were divided into four groups. One group took a placebo, the second took Omega-3 supplements and the third took a combination of Lutein and zeaxanthin (found in green leafy vegetables). The fourth group took a combination of all three supplements.

The results showed that no combination of nutritional supplements made a difference in cognitive decline over time.

Paul Bizinkauskas. MD, an internist with Cape Cod Healthcare who holds a master’s degree in Biotechnology, studied the effects of Omega-3 supplements on rats in the 1980s at Tufts New England Medical Center in Boston.

The first study showed that a combination of high-dose antioxidants and minerals slowed the progress of macular degeneration, Dr. Bizinkauskas said. In the second study, the addition of Omega-3 supplements to the combination did not change the progress of the degeneration, he said.

Other studies have shown that people who eat a diet high in fish, such as halibut, salmon and tuna have lower rates of age-related macular degeneration, cardiovascular disease and possibly dementia.

And Omega-3 fatty acids may provide benefits to those with known cardiac diseases, said Courtney Driscoll, RD LDN, a registered dietician at Cape Cod Healthcare. “They are thought to reduce arrhythmias and help bring triglycerides levels down, though the research on this is still fairly limited.”

So what to do? Driscoll says foods that are high in Omega-3s, such as salmon, nuts, flaxseeds and soy foods, are an important part of a well-balanced diet. They are also low in saturated fats and sodium And high in unsaturated fats and fiber, as well as vitamins and minerals.

Dr. Bizinkauskas agreed, saying that it’s better to eat foods that contain Omega-3 than take Omega-3 supplements. He recommends cold water fish for Omega-3 oils, such as mackerel, rainbow trout, blue fin tuna, herring and anchovies, which all contain higher levels of fish oil.

But if it’s Omega-3 you want, stay away from farm-raised salmon, which are corn-fed. “You want to eat fish that eat fish,” he said.