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by Nissa Simon
Updated September 28, 2022
When you're thinking about what to have for dinner, you might do well to remember the old card game Go Fish.
People who eat baked or broiled fish at least once a week may improve their brain health and cut the risk of developing memory problems or brain diseases, according to a study by the University of Pittsburgh.
Researchers examined records of 260 participants in the Cardiovascular Health Study who were in their mid-70s and who had no problems with memory, thinking or reasoning. The researchers then took a close look at their fish consumption and found that 163 of these men and women ate fish regularly, with the majority of them including it in their meals one to four times a week.
Ten years later, three-dimensional MRI brain scans were obtained for each participant. The researchers then did a brain mapping analysis on these scans that measured gray matter, which is crucial to brain health. "This is a mathematical way of understanding the influence of fish intake on the brain," says Cyrus Raji, M.D., the lead author.
Taking into account factors such as age, gender, physical activity, obesity and education, the researchers determined that people who ate fish weekly had large amounts of gray matter in areas of the brain that correlate with brain diseases and mild cognitive impairment, a subtle but measurable memory disorder.
Although previous studies have linked eating fish to brain health, the researchers say this study published in 2014 is the first to establish a direct relationship between fish consumption and brain structure and Alzheimer's risk. "Specific areas of gray matter in the brain are smaller in people with Alzheimer's because the disease slices away at these regions cell by cell," says neuropsychologist James Becker, a senior author of the study. If you start out with stronger, larger brain cells, however, it will take longer before the disease destroys so many cells that behavior and thinking start to change, Becker says.
Many people say that Alzheimer's is genetic and there's nothing you can do about your genes, notes Becker. "That's true. But even if you're destined to develop Alzheimer's you can delay the point at which the disease shows its face," he says. "Look at it this way. If you drive a four-cylinder car and one of the cylinders blows, you're in a lot of trouble. But if you drive an eight-cylinder car and a cylinder blows, you may not be in good shape but you can still get to where you're going. This is the biological equivalent of building in an extra four cylinders so that even if something goes wrong you've still got a lot of oomph left."
The researchers noted that regular servings of baked or broiled fish promote stronger brain cells in gray matter by making them larger and healthier; greater volume could reduce the risk for a five-year decline in mental skills by almost fivefold.
Although the study didn't identify the specific kinds of fish participants ate, past research ties fatty fishes such as salmon, mackerel and herring, which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, to brain health. Scientists already know that eating these fish can protect the heart. It turns out that they also protect the brain. Fried fish, on the other hand, provides no such benefits. "Frying changes the chemical composition of the omega-3 fatty acids, causing them to break down so there's less available," says Becker.
"There's a growing awareness that what we eat can affect our brain," says Scott Small, a Columbia University neurologist who was not involved in the 2014 research. When it was released, Small called the paper a step "in pointing out a link between eating fish and reducing the risk of cognitive decline."
• "Regular Fish Consumption and Age-Related Brain Gray Matter Loss," American Journal of Preventive Medicine, October 2014. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• "Intakes of fish and polyunsaturated fatty acids and mild-to-severe cognitive impairment risks: a dose-response meta-analysis of 21 cohort studies," The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, February 2016. In this review of 21 studies involving a total of 181,580 participants, researchers found evidence that eating fish — in particular, fish that contain docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid — is associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline. Read the full study.