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Omega-3 may reduce depression symptoms in the elderly: Study

By Stephen Daniells , 18-May-2011

Statistically and clinically significant - Harry Rice, PhD
Statistically and clinically significant - Harry Rice, PhD

Daily omega-3 supplements may reduce the occurrence of the symptoms of depression in elderly women, says a new study from Italy that adds to the ongoing debate over omega-3 and mood.

According to findings published in The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging, depressed women who received daily supplements containing 2.5 grams of omega-3 experienced significant reductions in their symptoms.

In addition, researchers from the University of Pavia also report that omega-3 supplements providing a daily EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) dose of 1.67 grams and a daily DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) dose of 0.83 grams reported improvements in the ‘quality of life’.

“This [quality of life] observation has never been achieved before and it appears of great value from the clinical point of view, due to the importance of these aspects in the elderly population,” wrote the researchers.

“The concept of quality of life is defined as a perceived global satisfaction and satisfaction within a number of key domains, with special emphasis on well-being.

“Therefore, the amelioration of quality of life in depressed elderly patients after supplementation with omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids is an important finding,” they added.

Jury’s still out?

The link between omega-3 and mood is complex and data to date is contradictory. For example, in researchers from Norway reported that regular and long-term intake of omega-3 fatty acid-rich cod liver oil may protect people from symptoms of depression (Journal of Affective Disorders).

Moreover, a joint Anglo-Iranian study reported that depression ratings were cut by 50 per cent following daily one gram supplements of EPA, an effect similar to that obtained by the antidepressant drug fluoxetine, according to findings published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry.

Despite this growing number of studies, the science overall is unsufficient to support a link between omega-3 and depression, said the British Medical Journal's Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin (DTB) in February 2007.

"Despite observational evidence linking depression with reduced intake of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, there is no convincing basis for using these nutrients as a [means of alleviating] the condition," stated the DTB.

Commenting on the findings, Harry Rice, PhD, VP regulatory & scientific affairs for the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED) welcomed the findings and said that they were not only statistically significant, “but clinically significant in that long-chain omega-3 intake improved quality of life while decreasing the severity of depression in elderly females not taking any antidepressant medication”.

“The logical next question is ‘Do the results hold up in elderly men not taking antidepressant medication?’

“While the results are exciting with potential clinical utility, it’s a stretch to conclude that the results support the theory that depression is a manifestation of a decrease in the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio caused by excessive omega-6 intake.

“For now, what can be concluded is that long-chain omega-3 supplementation reduced depressive symptoms, while improving quality of life, in elderly women. The public health implications of such findings are widespread,” added Dr Rice.

Adding to the debate

The Italian scientists recruited 46 depressed senior women at a nursing home in Pavia for their randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.

The women were randomly assigned to receive the omega-3 supplements or a placebo for two months.

Results showed a significant reduction in the average depression scores, as measured using the Geriatric Depression Scale, and this corresponded to increased levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the membranes of red blood cells.

In addition, physical and mental scores were improved when the women were asked to evaluate their own quality of like.

“Moreover, the intervention with omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids appears to be safe,” added the researchers.

“No relevant side effects were observed in the intervention group, not even adverse gastrointestinal effects, as reported in previous studies.”

Source: The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging (Springer)
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1007/s12603-010-0321-5
“Long chain omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids supplementation in the treatment of elderly depression: Effects on depressive symptoms, on phospholipids fatty acids profile and on health-related quality of life”
Authors: M. Rondanelli, A. Giacosa, A. Opizzi, C. Pelucchi and C. La Vecchia, et al.

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