Fats are classified into two main types: saturated and unsaturated. These distinctions have to do with the molecules’ chemical structure. Fats are basically long strings of carbon atoms. Saturated fats contain only single bonds, which allows the carbon chains to pack tightly together. This is the reason why saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature, like butter or coconut oil. Unsaturated fats contain at least one double bond, which creates a kink in the carbon chain so that they can’t pack together as tightly. This causes them to be liquid at room temperature, like olive oil or fish oil. The “omega” fats, such as omega-6 and omega-3, are types of unsaturated fats.
Unsaturated fats have been receiving a lot of attention lately for their importance in the brain. In a study published last week in PLOS Medicine, researchers analyzed 43 postmortem brains from individuals aged 57 to 95 years old. The brains were classified into three groups. The first group had healthy brains. The second group had clumps of amyloid-beta and tau in their brains (two toxic proteins typically found in Alzheimer’s disease), but no signs of memory or cognitive impairment. The third group had amyloid-beta and tau, along with symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
The researchers analyzed the brains for their levels of nearly 5,000 different molecules. They focused on three different brain regions, shown in the image below.
They found relatively small differences between the control group and asymptomatic group. However, the Alzheimer’s brains had significantly reduced levels of six different unsaturated fats, including several omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Lower levels of these fats were correlated with higher amyloid-beta and tau levels in the brain, as well as greater cognitive impairment. The greatest changes were observed in the two vulnerable brain regions (ITG and MFG), but there were also differences in the cerebellum as well, indicating that this brain region may not be as invulnerable as previously thought. These results suggest that disruptions in unsaturated fat metabolism could be linked to the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
The small sample size makes this study difficult to generalize beyond the study group. Additionally, we can’t conclude which factor is causative of the other. The reduced fat levels may be causing the disease, or vice versa. However, this is not the first study to link reductions in unsaturated fats with Alzheimer’s disease. For example, others have found that feeding Alzheimer’s disease rats a diet rich in omega-3 fats can improve memory.
While the link between unsaturated fats and dementia remains fuzzy, prioritizing these “healthy fats” in your diet is a simple way to improve overall health and possibly protect your brain as well. Start by replacing your cooking oils that are high in saturated fat (butter, lard, coconut oil) with unsaturated fat alternatives (olive oil, nut oils, vegetable oil). Other good sources of unsaturated fat are fatty fish, nuts, seeds, avocados, and olives.