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Fish rich in a type of beneficial fat might help prevent Alzheimer's disease, a study reports today.
The finding fits in with a growing body of scientific evidence that suggests Americans could reduce their risk of developing all sorts of killer diseases, such as heart disease, cancer and now Alzheimer's, if they ate a healthier diet -- one rich in fish, fruits and vegetables.
Everyone would benefit by adopting that diet, but baby boomers and younger people might gain a bigger health edge from eating more brain food. Researchers say Alzheimer's takes years to develop. About 4 million Americans now have the incurable disease, and that number is expected to grow to 14 million by the end of this century, the Alzheimer's Association says.
Martha Clare Morris of Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago and her colleagues recruited 815 people ages 65 to 94. At the start of the study, recruits showed no sign of Alzheimer's disease, which causes memory loss, confusion and the inability to perform routine tasks.
The researchers asked volunteers about their diet and kept track of them for an average of four years. At the end, 131 people developed Alzheimer's disease.
An analysis in today's Archives of Neurology revealed that people who ate fish once a week or more had a 60% lower risk of Alzheimer's than those who rarely or never ate fish. Oily fish such as salmon contain omega-3 fatty acids that have been shown to reduce the risk of dying from heart disease. Other foods, such as nuts and oil-based salad dressing, also contain these helpful fats, Morris says.
Animal research suggests these omega-3 fatty acids help nerve cells fire more efficiently and thus might help boost memory abilities, she says. Or it could be that people who eat more fish also choose to eat more fruits and vegetables. Other studies suggest fruits and vegetables might stave off Alzheimer's because they contain antioxidants that protect brain cells, says Robert Friedland, a neurologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Fish oil supplements, not considered in today's study, also can be a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, he says.
Consumers don't necessarily need to wait for a final verdict from science. ''There are lots of good reasons to eat more fish,'' says Bill Thies of the Alzheimer's Association.
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