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Is Fish Really 'Brain Food?'

For centuries, fish has the reputation as being "brain food" and research is confidently backing up the old wives' proverb to eat more of it.

A study of about 4000 senior citizens of Chicago, IL showed that all of them lost some cognitive sharpness - such as memory and speed of thinking - as the years passed. However, among those who ate fish once a week, the rate of cognitive decline was about 10% slower, and was 13% slower among those who consumed at least two fish meals a week. The difference is the equivalent of being three to four years younger, the researchers said.

Is there such thing as brain food? Can eating fish make you cleverer?

The Good News!

Fish - especially coldwater fish, such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, and herring-are rich in omega-3 fatty acids that have been found to be very important for brain function.

Fatty acids from fats are what your brain uses to create the specialized cells that allow you to think and feel.

Clinical research indicates omega-3 fatty acids are most important for brain health - they provide the physical building blocks necessary for the development and maintenance of the structural and functional integrity of the brain.

In fact, one of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, commonly known as DHA, makes up a large portion of the gray matter in the brain. Adding more DHA to your brain directly influences cell-to-cell communication, affects nerve conduction and neurotransmitter release, and other things that allow brain cells to send messages to each other.

The Better News: Other Health Benefits of Fish

  • Depression: Surveys suggest that groups with the highest fish consumption have the lowest rates of depression. The Japanese eat the most fish and have the lowest rates of depression in the world. Inflammation in the brain plays a large role in depression and omega-3s have anti-inflammatory effects.

  • Alzheimer Disease: Researchers at the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging in Chicago compared the fish-eating patterns of more than 800 men and women ages 65 to 94 and then checked to see whether they developed Alzheimer disease several years later. Results showed that those who ate at least one fish meal a week were significantly less likely to end up with Alzheimer disease than those who never-or hardly ever-ate fish.

  • Stroke: According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, if you increase your fish intake to once a week, the risk of stroke could go down by 22 percent. Two to four times a week reduces risk to 27%, and eating fish five times a week or more brings down the risk of stroke by up to 52 percent.

    Salmon is one of the best dietary sources of omega-3s, and is typically much lower in mercury than many other types of fish. PLUS you can even find mercury-free sources of it, such as in the store on It is also known for its wonderful flavor.

  • Healthy Heart: The omega-3s found in fish cut the risk of blood clots and thus lessen the chance of a heart attack. The American Heart Association recommends that you eat two servings or more of fish a week.

  • Cancer: Fish eaters have been reported to have low risks of cancers of the mouth, throat, stomach, colon, rectum, pancreas, lung, breast, and prostate. The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are thought by some researchers to be the components of fish responsible for protection against cancer. Many doctors recommend fish as part of an anticancer diet.

The Not-So-Good News ... You Must BEWARE Mercury in Fish

While the health and nutritional benefits of fish are high, widespread contamination of fish with toxic mercury is a very serious concern.

Nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of mercury, a highly toxic element found both naturally and as an introduced contaminant in the environment.

For most people, the risk from mercury by eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern. The risk depends on the amount of fish and shellfish eaten and the levels of mercury found in that particular fish.

Yet, some fish and shellfish contain higher levels of mercury that may harm an unborn baby or young child's developing nervous system.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and many health experts advise women who may become pregnant, who are pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children to avoid some to all types of fish due to their potential high mercury contents.

The following is a list of higher- and lower-mercury risk fish. The FDA recommends women who are pregnant, plan on becoming pregnant or nursing, and young children, should not eat the fish in the High-Mercury column. Everyone else can eat up to 7 ounces of high-mercury fish per week, although it's highly recommended to eat fish found in the Lower-Mercury column.

High-Mercury Fish

  • Shark
  • Swordfish
  • King Mackerel
  • Tilefish
  • Grouper
  • Marlin
  • Orange Roughy Lower-Mercury Fish
  • Anchovies
  • Calamari (squid)
  • Pollock
  • Catfish
  • Whitefish
  • Perch (ocean)
  • Scallops
  • Flounder
  • Haddock
  • Hake
  • Herring
  • Shad
  • Sole
  • Salmon
  • Tilapia
  • Sardines
  • Trout (freshwater)

   According to Jeremiah Baumann, environmental health advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, 'Women are faced with an unacceptable trade-off -- fish are a rich source of protein during pregnancy, but mercury pollution has made many types of fish a considerable health risk to their babies.
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