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Your Environment. Your Health.

Eating Fish Could Protect Older Women’s Brains From Air Pollution

Jiu-Chiuan Chen, M.D., Sc.D.
University of Southern California
R01ES025888, P30ES007048

Consuming omega-3 fatty acids may protect against air pollution-associated brain shrinkage in older women, according to a recent NIEHS-funded study. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish and play an important role in maintaining brain structure and function during aging.

The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study the brains of 1,315 U.S. women aged 65 to 80 years and assessed levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood. The women were enrolled in the study between 1996 and 1999 and underwent MRI between 2005 and 2006. Using geocoded participant addresses and data from a national network of air monitors, the researchers estimated each woman’s average exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) three years before MRI.

Women with higher blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids had larger volumes of white matter in their brains. Women living in locations with higher PM2.5 had significantly less white matter in their brains, but damage potentially caused by PM2.5 was greatly reduced in women with high blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids. White matter loss in the brain may be an early marker of Alzheimer’s disease.

According to the authors, these findings suggest that omega-3 fatty acids could contribute to the healthy aging of white matter and protect against the harmful effects of air pollution on the brain.

Citation: Chen C, Xun P, Kaufman JD, Hayden KM, Espeland MA, Whitsel EA, Serre ML, Vizuete W, Orchard T, Harris WS, Wang X, Chui HC, Chen JC, He K. 2020. Erythrocyte omega-3 index, ambient fine particle exposure, and brain aging. Neurology 95(8):e995–e1007.


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