VA study looks at effect of fish oil on Alzheimer’s disease risk in veteran population

More than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, and experts predict that number will triple by 2050 unless doctors find successful prevention treatments. The situation is even more critical for veterans, who face a higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease than the general population.

Dr. Cindy Carlsson, a geriatrics provider at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital and a researcher in the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, studies Alzheimer’s disease in the veteran population. Her new study evaluates whether fish oil favorably alters early brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease by improving blood flow to the brain in veterans with a family history for Alzheimer’s disease.

“We know fish oil has beneficial effects on heart health,” Carlsson says. “There is some evidence to suggest it may help against Alzheimer’s disease brain changes, but this is not proven yet.”

Risk factors in veterans

Age is the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease — one in nine people age 65 and older, and one-third of people age 85 and older, have Alzheimer’s disease. Family history and genetics also play major roles in determining a person’s risk for developing the disease. However, a range of lifestyle and health-related factors also determine Alzheimer’s disease risk.

Numerous studies show a racial gap in Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. African Americans are twice as likely, and Hispanics are one and a half times more likely, to develop the disease than whites. While scientists know these differences exist, they don’t know why.

In the veteran population, research has shown men and women who experience active military duty are at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease than the general population. Health care providers speculate the increased risk in veterans can be attributed to the heart-head connection. Veterans experience high cholesterol, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression at higher rates than the non-military population — all health concerns that increase a person’s risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.

The BRAVE-EPA study

In recent years, scientists have identified health changes that happen to people in their 50s and 60s that indicate an increased likelihood they will go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease. The goal of the BRAVE-EPA study is to determine if taking purified fish oil supplements to lower cholesterol can slow these changes and delay the onset of the tell-tale symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, namely changes to memory and other thinking skills, as well as personality changes.

“Alzheimer’s disease is devastating. The health and science communities are working on treating this disease on many fronts, from drugs and treatments that stop and reverse the disease, to lifestyle changes like diet and exercise that help delay or stop the onset of symptoms,” Carlsson explains. “The BRAVE-EPA study is looking at another possible intervention – utilizing a supplement we know is safe and has heart-health benefits and determining if it can also contribute to slowing AD in veterans with a family risk for the disease.”

In Carlsson’s study, volunteers will take an 18-month regimen of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) an omega-3 fatty acid found in coldwater fish, including mackerel, herring, tuna, halibut, salmon, and cod liver. Study volunteers will also undergo a series of brain imaging scans, lumbar punctures to retrieve cerebrospinal fluid, and memory and problem-solving tests. Study volunteers for the BRAVE-EPA study must fit all of the following requirements:

  • Veteran who are eligible for VA services
  • Normal memory and thinking
  • Age 50-75
  • Parental history of AD

The study requires nine visits spread over 18 months at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital and the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin. If you are interested in participating or learning more about the study, please contact the Study Coordinator, Elena Beckman at (608) 256-1901 ext. 11199, or email elena.beckman@va.gov.