Alzheimer disease is devastating both to the afflicted person and to that person's family. Capable persons become helpless and must be cared for by the family and by the community. This common problem of aging will expand in the near future because people are living longer. It is estimated that 20–40% of the population now over the age of 85 y may have Alzheimer disease (1). A further daunting statistic is that, once Alzheimer disease is identified as the cause of cognitive decline, the patient may live for many years with a high yearly cost of care. Are there potential and safe measures that would prevent this slide into cognitive failure? Fish and fish oil contain 2 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), that may have promise. The major dietary sources of these 2 fatty acids are fish and shellfish, from both salt water and fresh water. DHA can also be synthesized in the body from the n–3 fatty acid α-linolenic acid (18:3), which is present in some vegetable oils and some nuts and seeds. However, this synthetic step is relatively inefficient.

DHA is 22 carbons long and has 6 double bonds with the n–3 configuration. It is the most prominent fatty acid in the brain, retina, and spermatozoa (2) and is necessary for vision, cognition, and sperm motility. DHA is especially rich in the neurons and synaptosomes of the cerebral cortex, where it occupies the no. 2 position of membrane phospholipids. In premature infants whose formula contained DHA balanced with n–6 arachidonic acid, vocabulary and motor performance increased and vision improved (3). Monkeys deficient in dietary n–3 fatty acids have reduced vision, abnormal electroretinograms, and greater amounts of stereotypic behavior and polydypsia. Of interest also is the fact that dietary DHA can be incorporated into monkey brain phosophilipids later in life as well as during development (4). However, the brains of Alzheimer disease patients have a lower content of DHA in the gray matter of the frontal lobe and hippocampus than do the brains of persons without Alzheimer disease (5). The brains of persons with Alzheimer disease have an amyloid protein complex and an inflammatory component.

With this background, a logical question is: "Would fish consumption retard the decline in cognitive function that might otherwise occur in an elderly population, which is subject to Alzheimer disease? " Fish and fish oil have a high content of DHA and its 20-carbon precursor EPA. Studies to answer this question were begun in the 1990s. In a typical study, the investigators estimated the amount of fish in the diet or measured the composition of the plasma fatty acids at baseline, which provided an index of fish consumption. Cognition was estimated at baseline with a follow-up years later to correlate any change in cognition with the baseline fish consumption, plasma fatty acids, or both. In the past, some studies were positive and some were negative. A recent report from the Framingham Heart Study showed that persons with plasma phosphatidylcholine DHA in the top quartile of values had a significantly (47%) lower risk of developing all-cause dementia than did those in the bottom quartile (6). Significantly (P = 0.04) greater protection was obtained from consuming 2.9 fish meals per week than from consuming 1.3 fish meals per week. Two additional positive studies are described in this issue of the Journal (7, 8).

PMID: 17413088

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