Are You Wasting Money on Omega-3 Supplements?

Fish oil supplements may not prevent cognitive decline as much as we thought, say researchers at the National Institutes of Health in a new study published in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association. While these findings could be bad news for the $1.2 billion fish oil pill industry, experts say that diets rich in omega-3s are certainly beneficial to your health.

What They Found
Researchers from across the country followed 3,741 subjects with an average age of 73, for a total of five years. Half of the participants took an omega-3 fish oil supplement while the other half took a placebo. Every two years the researchers tested participants for cognitive function, using questionnaires that assess memory and problem-solving abilities. Neither group improved.

Why It Matters
A lot of misinformation and misunderstanding surrounds the supplement industry. As a result, consumers may spend money on unnecessary supplements. A 2012 report by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health shows that 7.8% of U.S. adults used fish oil supplements, making them the most popular non-vitamin/mineral supplement. These people could be wasting their money if their main goal is to prevent cognitive decline.

10-Year Use Trends for Individual Non-Vitamin, Non-Mineral Natural Products

Source: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

Expert Insight

Studies like these cast doubt on the efficacy of fish oil supplements, but that doesn’t mean that omega-3s have zero benefit for cognitive health. Various studies have shown that foods with high omega-3 content (such as fatty fish) are beneficial for memory and thought processes in older adults. And large meta-analyses (systematic reviews of numerous trials) suggest that people who get more omega-3s in their diets may have a lower risk of neurodegenerative diseases like ALS and Alzheimer’s. More research is needed, but in the meantime, you can feel good about eating omega-3-rich foods, like those in the Mediterranean diet.

Marcel Davidse

Marcel Davidse was an intern with the Healthy Aging Project in the fall of 2016, and graduated in December 2016 from the Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder.