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Robust evidence indicates that omega-3 fatty acids play critical roles in maintaining optimal human health, potentially conferring protection against heart disease, stroke, cancer, and other conditions. A new study demonstrates that dietary consumption of omega-3 fatty acids may help protect the brain from damage associated with exposure to particulate matter in air pollution.

Particulate matter is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets. It is present in fine inhalable particles, with diameters that are generally 2.5 micrograms or less. Exposure to air pollution promotes oxidative stress and increases the risk of developing many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, hypertension, and diabetes. Evidence indicates that global air pollution shortens people’s lives on a scale greater than warfare, other forms of violence, parasitic infection, and more.

The investigation involved 1,315 women (average age, 70 years) whose brain volumes had been assessed using structural brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) as part of a previous observational study. The authors of the current study estimated the women’s average exposure to particulate matter over a three-year period, based on the women’s addresses prior to the MRI. They measured the women’s dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids and non-fried fish via food frequency questionnaires and measured the omega-3 fatty content in the women’s red blood cells.

They found that higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids corresponded with higher red blood cell levels of omega-3s. In turn, the women with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their red blood cells had greater white matter and hippocampus volumes. Women who lived in areas with high levels of particulate air pollution had lower brain volumes, but these effects were attenuated with higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids and non-fried fish.

These findings suggest that omega-3 fatty acids confer protection against potential neurotoxic effects of air pollution on white matter volumes.

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