In the landmark Global Burden of Disease study, researchers compiled the top 20 causes of death and disability. Number one on the list was high blood pressure, two and three was smoke, and the fourth leading cause of loss of life and health was not eating enough fruit. Lack of exercise was number 10, followed by too much sodium, not enough nuts and seeds, not enough whole grains, and then not enough vegetables. Number 18 on the top 20 list was not getting enough long-chain omega-3 fatty acids like DHA and EPA found in seafood, due to their purported protective effect against heart disease. As I discuss in my video Is Fish “Brain Food” for Older Adults?, even years ago when the study was published, researchers were already questioning the benefits of these fish fats, as more and more randomized controlled trials put them to the test and they failed, culminating in the meta-analysis I profiled in my video Is Fish Oil Just Snake Oil? that appeared to put the issue to rest.
Consumption of fish and fish oil wasn’t only hyped for cardiovascular protection, though. Omega-3s have also been touted to treat depression. However, after taking into account all the negative results that went unpublished, there appears to be no benefit for major depression or for preventing suicide, as I explored in my video Fish Consumption and Suicide.
What about omega-3s for the prevention of cognitive decline or dementia? The available randomized controlled trials show no benefit for cognitive function with omega-3 supplementation in studies lasting from 6 to 40 months among healthy older adults.
It may sometimes even make things worse. “Higher current fish consumption predicted worse performance on several cognitive speed constructs. Greater fish consumption in childhood predicted slower perceptual speed and simple/choice reaction time.” This may be due to neurotoxic contaminants, such as mercury, in seafood. We’ve known that the developing brain is particularly sensitive to the damaging effects of mercury, but maybe the aging brain is as well.
This would explain results that have shown higher omega-3 levels to be associated with high levels of cognitive impairment and dementia. More EPA (eicosapentanoic acid) was found in the cognitively impaired, and more DHA (docosahexanoic acid) was found in the demented, presumably because of pollutants like mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in seafood that have been related to cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.
The same cognitive “functions disrupted in adults, namely attention, fine-motor function and verbal memory, are similar to some of those previously reported in children with prenatal exposures,” that is, exposed in the womb. And, the adults exposed to mercury through fish consumption didn’t have only subtle EEG brain wave changes, but “observable deficits in neurobehavioral performance measures,” such as poorer performance on tests of fine motor speed and dexterity, as well as concentration, for example. “Some aspects of verbal learning and memory were also disrupted by mercury exposure,” and the greater the mercury levels, the worse they did.
That study, however, was done downstream of a gold mining operation, which uses a process that uses lots of mercury. Other such studies were done on people eating fish next to chemical plants or toxic spills, or eating whale meat. What about a more mainstream population? An “elite group of well-educated participants”—most were corporate executives like CEOs and CFOs––all living in Florida and wealthy enough to afford so much seafood that at least 43 percent exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s safety limit for mercury were studied. Researchers found that excessive seafood intake, which they defined as more than three to four servings per month of large-mouth fish like tuna, snapper, and bass, elevates mercury levels and causes cognitive dysfunction, resulting in about a 5 percent drop in cognitive performance. This may not seem like much, but it’s “a decrement that no one, let alone a health-conscious and achievement-oriented person, is likely to welcome.”
“It is worth noting the irony in the situation; that is, the fact that corporate executives who chose to overconsume seafood for health reasons sustained a drop in their executive functions. Yet, if a 4.8% drop in executive function due to excessive seafood intake occurs in highly functioning, healthy adults with ample cognitive reserve, the major concern for further study is whether similar [mercury] level elevations in individuals already suffering from cognitive decline might result in substantially greater declines,” particularly with cognitive decline, dementia, and seafood consumption on the rise.
Fruit deficiency is the number-one dietary risk factor? For more, see Inhibiting Platelet Aggregation with Berries.
But what about th Inuit? See Omega-3s and the Eskimo Fish Tale.
For more on the shift of the evidence on fish and heart disease, see my Is Fish Oil Just Snake Oil? video.
The greatest danger of mercury exposure may be for children, as I discuss in Mercury vs. Omega-3s for Brain Development and How Long to Detox from Fish Before Pregnancy?.
Other videos on the effect of fish contaminants and health among adults include Fish and Diabetes and Fish Consumption and Suicide.
Mercury is not the only neurotoxic contaminant of seafood, though. See Diet and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease): Fishing for Answers.
Michael Greger, M.D.
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