The consumption of omega-3 and medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) can promote brain health and delay the onset and severity of degenerative diseases such as dementia, according to new research by a Japanese anti-ageing expert.

Among the many nutrients studied by scientists for the past two decades, omega-3 and MCTs are among the most promising in preventing and mitigating age-related diseases, especially dementia, says Prof Takuji Shirasawa. One of Japan’s top specialists in preventive medicine for ageing, Prof Shirasawa shared his findings at the Nutrition Society of Malaysia’s 31st Annual Scientific Conference held in Kuala Lumpur recently.

A type of fat found in cell membranes, omega-3 is made in our bodies but at a very slow pace. As such, omega-3 is mostly obtained from our diet. Oily fish such as tuna, salmon and mackerel are said to have high levels of omega-3.

“Omega-3 has been largely demonstrated to be protective of the cardiovascular system. As such, omega-3 plays a key role in the prevention, delay and mitigation of age-related diseases,” said Prof Shirasawa.

He recommended an intake of 250mg to 500mg of omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA per day to promote brain health. The best source of omega-3 can be found in fatty fish such as tuna, salmon and sardines.

Apart from omega-3, he suggested using proper oils and fats in the diet. “Reduce significantly omega-6 (commonly found in cooking oils and fried foods). Instead, use local oils and fats with anti-ageing properties.”

MCTs refer to the way the carbon atoms are arranged in their chemical structure. MCTs, which are abundant in coconut oil, are a natural source of dietary fat. Coconut oil contains 55% MCTs, while coconut milk fats have 45% MCTs.


Oily fish such as mackerel has a high level of omega-3. Photo: Filepic

He explained: “To function properly, our brain requires a constant stream of blood glucose to use as energy. However, our brain is like a hybrid engine. It can use both glucose and MCT fats. The brain of Alzheimer’s patients can no longer use glucose as a fuel. But we found out that the liver is able to break down the MCTs from coconut oil and use it as energy source for the brain. The brain can also produce small quantities of ketone bodies but the liver is a major source of ketones obtained from MCTs or stored body fat. These ketones can cross the blood-brain barrier to provide instant energy for the brain.”

Prof Shirasawa recommended an intake of 60ml coconut oil or coconut milk daily. For Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, 120ml daily may be helpful in improving their condition.

Ageing population

In 2015, there were 2.8 million senior citizens aged 60 and above or 9% of Malaysia’s population of 31 million people. By 2050, Malaysia is expected to have 40.7 million citizens with 23.5% of the population being senior citizens. Without proper planning, it will be a heavy burden on healthcare services and families to care for more senior citizens.

Currently, 1.4 out of every 10 Malaysian adults aged 60 and above suffer from dementia. The incidence of dementia rises to 22.7% among those aged 75 and above. Dementia is a broad term to describe a wide range of symptoms related to a decline in memory or thinking skills, or even violent behaviour, that is serious enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday activities.

Prof Shirasawa cited nursing as the main cost for families which need to look after seniors with dementia. For example, the nursing cost for Alzheimer’s care in the United States in 2030 will be higher than Malaysia’s gross domestic product in 2015.

With a growing ageing population and longer life expectancy, Prof Shirasawa said nutrition is not only to prevent or mitigate non-communicable diseases. Nutrition should also improve the quality of life of senior citizens and limit the burden of age-related diseases. He suggested a dietary change and staying active to promote a healthier brain in our golden years.

Prof Shirasawa has written a health and recipe book, Food For The Brain, to address the need for more omega-3 and MCTs in the diet. The recipes were developed with local tastes in mind.

“Our studies have shown that nutrition strategies incorporating omega-3 and medium-chain triglycerides can promote brain health that leads to extended healthy and happy years,” said Prof Shirasawa.

Prof Shirasawa pointed out that to build a healthier ageing nation, we should revisit the current food pyramid and place more emphasis on omega-3 and MCTs consumption.

The food pyramid introduced in the 1980s is the biggest misconception, he said. It promoted an excess intake of refined carbohydrates. All types of fats have been demonised for many years and there were calls to substitute fats with sugar.

“The food pyramid has created a culture of unhealthily high carbohydrate intake and a world addiction to sugar. The negative consequences of the food pyramid on public health is incalculable,” Prof Shirasawa stressed.

“The food pyramid has reduced the percentage of fats among US citizens from 43% to 33%. Ironically, in the 60s, only 1 in 100 Americans had type 2 diabetes. Now it is 1 in 10 people. Meanwhile, 1 in 7 Americans were obese in the 60s but now, it is 1 in 3 people. These figures imply that the food pyramid was inefficient, and that no-fat and low-fat diets are damaging,” he explained.

In 2009, researchers concluded that high-fat diets outperformed low-fat diets when it comes to weight loss, lower risks of heart diseases, diabetes, inflammation and hypertension.

“The general population who decrease the ratio of carbs, cut out sugars, eat more fruits and vegetables, and increase the ratio of fats within the limit of their daily calorie needs, are healthier and tend to manage their weight better,” added Prof Shirasawa.

Food For The Brain will be available at Popular Bookstores nationwide from August.