Omega-3 supplements may help mitigate cognitive decline in people with late-onset depression

A 52-week study involving people with late-life depression found that participants who took omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplements experienced improved processing speed and reduced brain entropy in several brain regions in compared to the placebo group. The document was published in Journal of affective disorders.

Late-life depression refers to depression that occurs in older adults, usually those age 60 and older. It can be the result of a number of factors, including chronic illness, social isolation, loss of loved ones and changes in life circumstances. Late-onset depression may manifest differently than depression in younger individuals, with symptoms such as memory problems, physical complaints, and lack of motivation being more prominent.

This condition can have a profound impact on an individual’s physical health, increasing the risk of heart disease, weakening the immune system, and exacerbating existing health problems. Socially, it can lead to isolation and a decreased quality of life, as older people may withdraw from social interactions and activities they once enjoyed.

Late-onset depression also often causes cognitive impairments such as memory loss or difficulty concentrating. Studies indicate that people who suffer from this type of depression are almost twice as likely to develop dementia.

Study author Chemin Lin and colleagues wanted to explore whether omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplements could help mitigate cognitive impairments in people with late-life depression. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are essential fats that the human body cannot produce on its own. They are found in foods like fish, flaxseeds and walnuts, and are important for heart health, brain function and reducing inflammation.

Previous research has shown that omega-3 supplements can significantly reduce depressive symptoms (at doses above 1.5 grams per day), improve markers of inflammation, and provide additional health benefits. The study authors hypothesized that these supplements might also reduce cognitive impairments in people with late-onset depression and designed an experiment to test this theory.

The study included 20 participants over the age of 60 who had experienced at least one depressive episode after age 55. They were divided into two groups without being informed of their group assignment. One group received capsules containing 2.2 grams of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids daily for 52 weeks, while the control group received capsules containing soybean oil.

Throughout the study, participants underwent assessments and received capsules at seven intervals. Assessments included assessments of overall disease symptoms, sleep quality, loneliness, and tests of cognitive function, along with blood samples for markers of inflammation and magnetic resonance imaging.

The results showed that cognitive processing speed improved in the group taking omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplements, while it remained unchanged in the group taking soybean oil capsules. Inflammatory markers and other domains of cognitive functioning were not affected by these supplements.

In addition, the omega-3 group showed reduced brain entropy in several brain regions, indicating a potential mechanism by which omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids could counteract the cognitive decline of late-life depression through anti-inflammatory actions and modulation of brain entropy. The authors call for larger clinical trials to confirm the therapeutic potential of omega-3 supplements for people with late-life depression.

These findings suggest that omega-3 PUFAs [polyunsaturated fatty acid) supplement may mitigate cognitive decline in LLD [late-life depression] through anti-inflammatory mechanisms and brain entropy modulation. Larger clinical trials are warranted to validate the potential therapeutic implications of omega-3 PUFAs for deterring cognitive decline in patients with late-life depression,” the study authors concluded.

The study makes an important contribution to the scientific understanding of the effects of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid intake on biological markers in individuals with late-life depression. However, it should be noted that the number of participants was small. It is possible that the treatment produced additional effects, but that they were simply not strong enough to confidently differentiate them from random variation in such a small group of participants.

The article, Cognitive protection and brain entropy changes of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in late-life depression: a 52-week randomized controlled trial, was written by Chemin Lin, Shwu-Hua Lee, Chih-Mao Huang, Yu-Wen Wu, You-Xun Chang, HoLing Liu, Shu-Hang Ng, Ying-Chih Cheng, Chih-Chiang Chiu, and Shun-Chi Wu.

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