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Omega-3 fatty acids won't help your memory, study finds

Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish or supplement form, are often seen as a go-to compound for boosting brain health. But, contrary to earlier studies, researchers are reporting that link may be nothing more than a myth.

"There has been a lot of interest in omega-3s as a way to prevent or delay cognitive decline, but unfortunately our study did not find a protective effect in older women," study author Eric Ammann, a PhD student in public health at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, said in a statement.

Researchers looked at more than 2,150 older women between 65 and 80 who were enrolled in the Women's Health Initiative trial looking at hormone therapy use.

These researchers focused on the thinking and memory tests the women took throughout the study, which tracked them for an average of six years. The women also underwent blood tests before the study began, where researchers were able to glean their levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

Dietary omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fatty fish and shellfish, including tuna, rout, crab, mussels and oysters, some oils (like soy and canola) and nuts.

The compounds are well-studied, but the benefits remain up for debate. Researchers have previously linked eating fatty fish to lower risk of heart disease, while other studies have found no reductions in heart attack, stroke and death risk for supplement-takers.

Similarly, some studies have found omega-3s can help the brain age better, finding people with lower levels of the acids in their blood scored lower on memory and cognitive tests, compared to people with higher levels of the compounds.

That benefit too has been questioned in research finding opposite results.

The researchers behind the new study, published Sept. 25 in Neurology, wanted to find out by looking at this long-running study of women if they can find a link between taking the supplements and memory skills.

They found no difference between women with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids and women with low levels, not only for the initial memory test but subsequent tests. Omega-3 fatty acids made no difference in how fast thinking skills declined.

Though the benefits weren't found, Ammann urged people not to change their diets due to his study. After all, omega-3s didn't make memory decline worse, and foods high in the compounds are healthier than some options out there.

"We do not recommend that people change their diet based on these results," he said. "We know that fish and nuts can be healthy alternatives to red meat and full-fat dairy products, which are high in saturated fats."

Dr. Peter Whitehouse, a professor of neurology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland who was not involved in the new paper, disputed the findings to CBS News' Adriana Diaz. Blood levels may not paint a complete picture of how omega-3's are helping the body, he said.

"You cannot conclude from this study that having omega-3 in your diet is not important for your brain health and for your body health as well," said Whitehouse. "They are important for practically all aspects of body health particularly heart -- it may also affect other things like risk for cancers."

More evidence-backed ways to avoid dementiaand memory woes include not smoking, avoiding diabetes, doing puzzles to keep your brain sharp, maintaining a healthy weight, keeping your blood pressure in check, exercising regularly and keeping social connections with friends and family.

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