The brain is a lipid-rich organ where docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is enriched and where eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) may have anti-inflammatory effects. The potential role for n-3 (ω-3) fatty acids such as DHA and EPA in the prevention of cognitive decline, including Alzheimer's disease (AD) has attracted major interest for the past 20 y.

This review presents our understanding of recent observational, interventional, and experimental studies, with the aim of providing some answers to the following question: Can n-3 FA intake modulate cognitive function during aging?

In longitudinal observation studies we mainly observe inverse relations between fish intake or serum concentrations of DHA and cognitive impairment. Intervention studies of EPA and DHA supplementation in healthy old individuals have been negative so far (i.e., after up to 2 years of treatment, no differences in cognitive decline between treated and nontreated participants have been observed). In studies that provided EPA and DHA to adults with mild cognitive impairment or age-related cognitive impairment the data seem to be positive. However, when patients with established AD were supplemented with EPA and DHA it appears no benefit was gained.

For studies on healthy individuals, a major concern is that the treatment periods may have been too short. There might also be subgroup effects because of the carriage of apolipoprotein Eε4 alleles or risk factor burden. Experimental studies appear to be consistently positive (i.e., n-3 FA supplementation in rodents over a substantial portion of their lives reduces amyloid-β deposition and hippocampal neuron loss and improves cognitive functioning).

We are getting closer to providing evidence-based recommendations on fish and fish oil intake to facilitate memory function during old age. In the meantime it is advised to follow the general CDC dietary recommendations of 2-3 fish meals per week or the equivalent intake of long chain n-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA.