The #1 Nutrient for Brain Health As You Age, According to a Dietitian

Find out why you need to be consuming omega-3 fatty acids to help improve your cognitive health.

Let's face it, we're all looking for ways to stay sharp as we get older. Whether you've watched a loved one struggle with cognitive decline or simply want to be proactive for your own health, we see you. While your daily dose of the trendy Wordle or alternative game app may certainly be keeping your brain engaged, there's another missing link you may want to consider adding to your regular routine: omega-3 fatty acids. Here's everything you need to know about omega-3s and brain health as you age.

Omega-3 fatty acids have shown promise in multiple areas of wellness, which is why they continue to receive the spotlight. From promoting heart health to reducing inflammation, improving mental health, cognition and more, there is little untouched as far as the benefits of these stellar fats.

Before we dive into the science, here's a biology refresher. The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are critical components of cell membranes, meaning they play an important role in keeping the brain functioning and facilitating communication between cells. Simply put, they are a big deal when it comes to cognitive health.

According to Taylor Wallace, Ph.D., CFS, FACN, a professor at George Mason University and Forbes Health advisory board member, your body can produce around 10% of EPA and DHA from ALA that's consumed in your diet; however, as we age and with the onset of cognitive decline, this conversion rate becomes even smaller.

He shares, "In both animal and human studies when the diet is void of omega-3 fatty acids, the levels of DHA (in particular) in the brain decrease, accelerating aging and affecting memory."

While researchers agreed that a growing body of evidence suggests the benefits of augmenting the diet with omega-3 supplementation to support brain health and protect against neurodegeneration in older adults, the methods and measures varied in each study. Some studies focused on older patients found daily intakes of 480 milligrams DHA and 720 mg EPA showed benefits, while others ranged from 800 mg DHA to 225 mg EPA. Thus, further research is warranted to create a consensus on optimum intake levels.

Both Wallace and Davis recommend a food-first approach but defer to supplements when dietary intake is lacking, because they're a practical way for consumers to meet their daily needs.

The haven't been updated in over 20 years. As such, the current guidelines recommend omega-3 intakes of 1.6 grams per day for men and 1.1 grams per day for women, but these numbers are reflective of ALA recommendations only. Currently, there are no U.S. government dietary recommendations for EPA and DHA.

With that said, the American Heart Association recommends at least 250 mg per day of DHA and EPA to prevent heart disease () while the recommends at least 500 mg DHA and EPA per day to support overall health.

Given these variances (and the differences in omega-3s administered in the studies above), more research is needed to derive a consistent recommended intake for brain health benefits.

Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA and DHA, are critical for healthy aging and cognition. While more research is needed on the recommended amounts for optimum brain-health benefits, you should consider upping your intakes of DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids immediately—it's never too late to start! You can do this by committing to eat fatty fish such as salmon, sardines and herring or plant-based sources like chia seeds, walnuts and flaxseeds at least twice per week, and by taking a fish oil or krill oil supplement. (Consult your health care team before starting any supplements, as they can be harmful for people with certain conditions.) Those following a vegetarian or vegan diet can get EPA and DHA from algal oil supplements, which are derived from marine microalgae—the food source that fish use to store up EPA and DHA omega-3s themselves.

For a tasty way to get more fatty fish, consider adding one of these delicious omega-3-rich recipes to your meal plan this week.