The Hidden Risks of Using Omega-3 Supplements to Prevent Memory Loss

The Hidden Risks of Using Omega-3 Supplements to Prevent Memory LossMany older adults are concerned about their mental function being adversely affected by age. To help prevent memory loss in the future, many experts suggest omega-3 fatty acids, which work by protecting against the development of dangerous plaque in the brain. While the ability of omega-3s to help prevent memory loss may be well-known, there’s a little more discord about what is the best way to consume these fatty acids.

For most, fatty fish may be the best omega-3 source. However, many are concerned about the toxins found in fish, resorting to supplements or omega-3 capsules to help prevent memory loss. But researchers at Philadelphia University say the use of supplements may be filling your body with contaminants—meaning they might not really be a better alternative to prevent memory loss than actual fish.

Here’s how it breaks down: fish oil is the largest source of valuable omega-3s in these supplements. Fish oil may contain dangerous amounts of contaminants, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a man-made chemical compound that was banned from manufacture in the U.S. in 1979, but is still present in trace amounts in many products. PCBs are known carcinogens.

The researchers looked at 13 fish oil or powder dietary supplements—all of which were easily purchasable over the counter—to see how much PCB they each contained. They then tracked how much PCB individuals would be exposed to if they took these supplements every day. Their results showed that every one of the 13 supplements contained some degree of PCBs, with daily exposure values ranging from 2.5 to as high as 50.3 nanograms per day.

There has been lots of support on how omega-3 supplements can help prevent memory loss. But this research sheds new light on the possible risks that come with it. Taking fish supplements to prevent memory loss can actually increase your exposure to harmful contaminants. If you’re one of the many individuals who take fish oil supplements to prevent memory loss, one way to make sure you’re doing more harm than good is to ditch your supplements and instead opt for fresh fish that is high in omega-3s, but low in PCBs.

There are also other lifestyle changes that you can incorporate to help prevent memory loss as you get older. The adage “use it or lose it” says it all, because actively using your mind does keep your mental abilities in check. To prevent memory loss, engage in activities that force you to think, and challenge your mind with crosswords and brainteasers. Managing stress, regular exercise at home, and healthy sleep patterns have also all been shown to help prevent memory loss.


Ashley, J.T., et al., “Children’s daily exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls from dietary supplements containing fish oils,” Food Addit Contam Part A Chem Anal Control Expo Risk Assess 2013; 30, doi: 10.1080/19440049.2012.753161.

“Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs),” United States Environmental Protection Agency web site;, last accessed May 22, 2013.