A specific type of omega-3 fatty acid, called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), is found in cell membranes and at your brain’s nerve endings. These compounds keep your cells healthy, allowing messages to travel efficiently. A study in the journal Alzheimer's and Dementia found that people who supplemented their diets with DHA had the learning and memory skills of someone up to three years younger. And a study in the Journal of Nutrition Health and Aging found that a group of people in their seventies who regularly consumed fish (especially fatty fish, like salmon, trout and mackerel) scored higher on cognitive tests, on average, than a group that didn’t eat fish. Other research suggests that fatty fish can also improve your mood: High DHA levels are linked to increased dopamine and serotonin, the same brain chemicals that antidepressants activate.
To make DHA, your body needs alpha-linolenic acid [ALA], which is found in flax, hemp, chia, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, soy and leafy greens. “We can convert ALA into DHA, but the process is inefficient,” says Lisa Powell, M.S., R.D., Director of Nutrition at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. “It’s this inefficiency that makes it important to either eat fatty fish or supplement your diet with a combined EPA/DHA product.” Aim for two servings of fatty fish per week (no more than 12 ounces total, due to mercury concerns); choose fish low in mercury, such as halibut, mackerel, salmon and trout. Canned light tuna is another good source of omega-3s, but it’s wise to be extra mindful of your servings, due to its higher mercury level. If you don’t eat much fatty fish, talk to your nutritionist or physician about whether a supplement might be right for you.
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