Consumers worldwide spend more than $30 billion a year on omega-3 products and supplements, according to Packaged Facts, a consumer market research company. In surveys of 10,000 frequent supplement users conducted by ConsumerLab.com, fish oil pills—fish oil is high in omega-3 fatty acids—were the most frequently bought supplement product.
The human body isn’t equipped to produce these “good fats,” said to be essential to health, on its own. That’s a great marketing hook for companies that push these supplements based on scant research that suggests omega-3s can help boost brain health.
But new research from the National Institutes of Health finds daily omega-3 supplements don’t slow cognitive decline. The results of the five-year, placebo-controlled trial of 4,000 patients were published this week in JAMA.
The study came about somewhat serendipitously. Dr. Emily Chew, deputy director of the Division of Epidemiology and Clinical Applications and deputy clinical director at the National Eye Institute, part of NIH, led the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS), which, from 1992 to 2001 evaluated the long-term benefits of nutritional supplements in patients with age-related macular degeneration, a primary cause of vision loss in older people. AREDS concluded that high levels of antioxidants and minerals slow macular degeneration.
Chew began a follow-up study in 2006 (AREDS2) to test the addition of omega-3 in the daily supplements use to slow macular degeneration. Chew and her team realized their study design also provided an opportunity to investigate the purported cognitive health benefits of omega-3 supplements. The group of study participants were an average of 72 years old and 58 percent were female. The researchers divided participants into four groups: One-quarter took two kinds of omega-3s and one took lutein and zeaxanthin, which are nutrients found in leafy green vegetables. The researchers gave the third group a combination of the two supplements, while the last group took placebo supplements.
Chew and her team conducted cognitive tests on participants at the start of the study, and then two and four years later. At follow-up tests, the researchers found cognitive abilities declined at the same rate across all four groups, which indicates that the supplements most likely aren’t effective.
However, some research has shown docosahexaenoic acid, a type of omega-3, can help clear away beta-amyloid plaque in mice . These sticky plaques that form in the brain are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. Still, Chew and her fellow researchers say more research would need to be conducted to see if the same effect could be replicated in humans.
Ultimately, it may be more beneficial (and enjoyable) to simply eat foods rich in omega-3s, such as fatty fish (like salmon, herring, sardines and mackerel), nuts (walnuts, pecans and macadamia nuts) and seeds (flax and chia). Simply put: Spend your hard-earned cash on wild salmon rather than a bottle of omega-3s.