Q: You're always saying omega-3s are so good for you, but I heard some news about a study that claims they don't keep your brain healthy. Should I bother to take the DHA omega-3 supplements that you both take? — Sam B., Portland, Ore.
A: We're glad you asked! The truth lies in the study's details, but sometimes, what gets reported is just the broadest summary of the information, and that can glide over facts you need to make an informed decision.
First, some background: Omega-3s come in three forms: DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) are in cold water fish, such as salmon, mackerel, halibut and sardines, as well as trout (aim for two to three 3-ounce servings a week), and in the algae they eat. ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is in avocados, canola oil, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, soybeans and soy oil, and walnuts and their oil.
DHA-omega-3 builds cell membranes in the brain and protects against macular degeneration and colon cancer and eases inflammatory bowel disease and autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. EPA helps control blood clotting and protects against heart attack and stroke, while all three types decrease inflammation.
Only about 2 percent of ALA converts to EPA, and only about 2 percent of EPA converts to DHA, so we get all the omega-3's we can from food, and add a 900 milligram daily supplement of DHA from an algal oil.
Now, about the study that says omega-3s don't prevent cognitive decline. Where to start?
No. 1: The new study (a review of three studies, not an original study) says nothing about the brain benefits of long-term supplementation of omega-3s, begun when you're younger than 60.
No. 2: The participants under review didn't display enough difference or decline in cognitive ability to really assess omega-3s' benefits during the (too-short) span of the studies.
No. 3: No one cited the type of omega-3 used in the three studies! DHA, the brain-active one, is the one we want to get into you. It makes a difference!
Bottom line: MIDAS (Memory Improvement with Docosahexaenoic Acid [DHA] Study) showed taking DHA omega-3 supplements at the first sign of cognitive decline can make your brain function as if it were six years younger! And since there are no known risks and so many benefits from taking DHA supplements, we'll keep on taking them every day. And we hope you start, too!
Q: My 12-year-old son wants to play football very badly, and for a long time I was dead set against it because of possible head injury. Now all his friends at school are getting into football, and I hear they are making rules changes to avoid head injuries. Is it safe yet? — Julia M., Cleveland Heights, Ohio
A: There's no doctor in North America who'd say football is risk-free, but we have to weigh the risks and rewards. (In March, we talked about how to make soccer safer by instituting a “no header” rule for kids' leagues. That reduces, but does not eliminate, the cumulative effect of many small head traumas on developing brains.)
Turns out, most football head injuries happen in practice from smaller, more repetitive hits. And it's why the medical advisers at Pop Warner (the largest youth football organization in the U.S. with more than 425,000 kids) introduced a rule to limit contact drills to a third of practice time. They're also banning full-speed contact drills between players more than 3 yards apart.
These new rules are a step in the right direction and will help change football's head-banging culture from the bottom up. But you need to actively work with the coaches to make sure they limit contact drills and use the best and latest protective equipment. (There's a mouthguard called the Jaw-Joint Protector that provides extra protection against concussions.)
And be sure that after age 5, you give kids 200 milligrams a day of DHA omega-3. DHA is the key fat that builds and repairs brain tissue.