Delicious in stir-fries, salads or just on their own, shrimp are “small fry” that offer a big nutritional payoff with each bite. At just over 80 calories, a 3-ounce serving of shrimp provides 18 grams of protein and a single gram of fat, making the familiar crustacean a nutritious, low-calorie option for dinner. What’s more, like other forms of seafood, shrimp may offer a boost to brain health, serving up healthy doses of vitamin B12 and Omega-3 fatty acids, both of which have been associated with protecting the aging brain from cognitive decline in some studies.
Stephen C. Cunnane, research chair in brain metabolism and cognition during aging at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec, has studied how nutrition affects the brain and says that increasing fish consumption and the Omega-3s they provide may help protect the brain as we age. Some of his research has focused on one of the three types of Omega-3s — DHA, short for docosahexaenoic acid — which Cunnane says could be part of the answer, or could just be a … red herring.
“The brain absolutely needs DHA. I don’t think anyone can give you a truly simple, direct, clear answer to ‘What does DHA do?’ It’s present in large amounts in the brain. It’s present at the points where brain cells talk to each other, called synapses. But what it does there is not clear, and how it gets there isn’t clear,” he says. The topic, he adds, is “a field of intense interest to a lot of people around the world.”
Although some studies have shown that Alzheimer’s disease patients have a somewhat reduced level of DHA in the gray matter of their brains, Cunnane says investigating that phenomenon didn’t provide the clear-cut link to Alzheimer’s that they thought it might, and it’s still an open question. “The [epidemiological] evidence tends to suggest — it’s not overwhelming or bulletproof evidence, but it’s reasonably strong — that eating fish, in other words, DHA consumption, is helping to protect against Alzheimer’s. But so far, there’s no evidence yet that we can protect the brain by giving people DHA supplements as we get older,” he says, noting that researchers often find that consuming whole foods is more effective than supplementing a single nutrient via pill or tincture.
Which brings us back to shrimp and other seafood. Cunnane — who posits in his 2005 book Survival of the Fattest that seafood may have been a key component of human brain evolution 1 million to 2 million years ago — says that there could be something else in these food items that complements the nutrients or helps our bodies absorb their goodness, making them more effective (not to mention tastier) than a pill. Or maybe people who eat fish regularly make other smart health decisions, too. In any case, Cunnane says what we eat is just one piece of the brain-health jigsaw puzzle that must also include moderate physical activity and a healthy social network. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Don’t depend just on eating fish [to protect against age-related cognitive decline] because it’s not clear that that’s going to be enough.” — Elaine K. Howley
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