Harvard Health Letter

Do omega-3s protect your thinking skills?

It may be helpful to eat a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

omega-3 thinking skills
Image: Elena_Danileiko/Thinkstock

Maybe you're hoping to protect your thinking skills by eating oily fish like salmon or taking a daily fish oil supplement. After all, the media frequently talk about the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil, and sales of fish oil supplements are $1 billion per year in the United States. But can fish oil keep us thinking clearly? "For people who are healthy, who don't have a decline in memory and thinking skills, the question of prevention has not yet been answered," Dr. Scott McGinnis, an assistant professor in neurology at Harvard Medical School, explains.

About omega-3s

Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats in food that are essential for health. There are three main types:

  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are found mostly in oily fish, such as mackerel and salmon.
  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found mostly in some green vegetables (such as Brussels sprouts, spinach, and kale), vegetable oils (such as canola or soybean), nuts (such as walnuts), and seeds (such as flaxseeds and pumpkin seeds). The body converts ALA into EPA or DHA, but only a small fraction of it is converted.

Omega-3 fats perform a number of jobs, especially building cell membranes throughout the body and the brain. "There's evidence they can have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects as well, which means they might promote healthier brain cells and less deterioration of the brain," says Dr. McGinnis.

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