The individual and interactive relationship between long chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and physical activity as predictors of cognition in cognitively impaired and non-impaired older adults

Street, Steven John (2012) The individual and interactive relationship between long chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and physical activity as predictors of cognition in cognitively impaired and non-impaired older adults. PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology.


Alterations in cognitive function are characteristic of the aging process in humans and other animals. However, the nature of these age related changes in cognition is complex and is likely to be influenced by interactions between genetic predispositions and environmental factors resulting in dynamic fluctuations within and between individuals. These inter and intra-individual fluctuations are evident in both so-called normal cognitive aging and at the onset of cognitive pathology. Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), thought to be a prodromal phase of dementia, represents perhaps the final opportunity to mitigate cognitive declines that may lead to terminal conditions such as dementia. The prognosis for people with MCI is mixed with the evidence suggesting that many will remain stable within 10-years of diagnosis, many will improve, and many will transition to dementia. If the characteristics of people who do not progress to dementia from MCI can be identified and replicated in others it may be possible to reduce or delay dementia onset, thus reducing a growing personal and public health burden. Furthermore, if MCI onset can be prevented or delayed, the burden of cognitive decline in aging populations worldwide may be reduced.

A cognitive domain that is sensitive to the effects of advancing age, and declines in which have been shown to presage the onset of dementia in MCI patients, is executive function. Moreover, environmental factors such as diet and physical activity have been shown to affect performance on tests of executive function. For example, improvements in executive function have been demonstrated as a result of increased aerobic and anaerobic physical activity and, although the evidence is not as strong, findings from dietary interventions suggest certain nutrients may preserve or improve executive functions in old age. These encouraging findings have been demonstrated in older adults with MCI and their non-impaired peers. However, there are some gaps in the literature that need to be addressed. For example, little is known about the effect on cognition of an interaction between diet and physical activity. Both are important contributors to health and wellbeing, and a growing body of evidence attests to their importance in mental and cognitive health in aging individuals. Yet physical activity and diet are rarely considered together in the context of cognitive function. There is also little known about potential underlying biological mechanisms that might explain the physical activity/diet/cognition relationship.

The first aim of this program of research was to examine the individual and interactive role of physical activity and diet, specifically long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid consumption(LCn3) as predictors of MCI status. The second aim is to examine executive function in MCI in the context of the individual and interactive effects of physical activity and LCn3.. A third aim was to explore the role of immune and endocrine system biomarkers as possible mediators in the relationship between LCn3, physical activity and cognition.

Study 1a was a cross-sectional analysis of MCI status as a function of erythrocyte proportions of an interaction between physical activity and LCn3. The marine based LCn3s eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) have both received support in the literature as having cognitive benefits, although comparisons of the relative benefits of EPA or DHA, particularly in relation to the aetiology of MCI, are rare. Furthermore, a limited amount of research has examined the cognitive benefits of physical activity in terms of MCI onset. No studies have examined the potential interactive benefits of physical activity and either EPA or DHA. Eighty-four male and female adults aged 65 to 87 years, 50 with MCI and 34 without, participated in Study 1a. A logistic binary regression was conducted with MCI status as a dependent variable, and the individual and interactive relationships between physical activity and either EPA or DHA as predictors. Physical activity was measured using a questionnaire and specific physical activity categories were weighted according to the metabolic equivalents (METs) of each activity to create a physical activity intensity index (PAI). A significant relationship was identified between MCI outcome and the interaction between the PAI and EPA; participants with a higher PAI and higher erythrocyte proportions of EPA were more likely to be classified as non-MCI than their less active peers with less EPA.

Study 1b was a randomised control trial using the participants from Study 1a who were identified with MCI. Given the importance of executive function as a determinant of progression to more severe forms of cognitive impairment and dementia, Study 1b aimed to examine the individual and interactive effect of physical activity and supplementation with either EPA or DHA on executive function in a sample of older adults with MCI. Fifty male and female participants were randomly allocated to supplementation groups to receive 6-months of supplementation with EPA, or DHA, or linoleic acid (LA), a long chain polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acid not known for its cognitive enhancing properties. Physical activity was measured using the PAI from Study 1a at baseline and follow-up. Executive function was measured using five tests thought to measure different executive function domains. Erythrocyte proportions of EPA and DHA were higher at follow-up; however, PAI was not significantly different. There was also a significant improvement in three of the five executive function tests at follow-up. However, regression analyses revealed that none of the variance in executive function at follow-up was predicted by EPA, DHA, PAI, the EPA by PAI interaction, or the DHA by PAI interaction. The absence of an effect may be due to a small sample resulting in limited power to find an effect, the lack of change in physical activity over time in terms of volume and/or intensity, or a combination of both reduced power and no change in physical activity.

Study 2a was a cross-sectional study using cognitively unimpaired older adults to examine the individual and interactive effects of LCn3 and PAI on executive function. Several possible explanations for the absence of an effect were identified. From this consideration of alternative explanations it was hypothesised that post-onset interventions with LCn3 either alone or in interation with self-reported physical activity may not be beneficial in MCI. Thus executive function responses to the individual and interactive effects of physical activity and LCn3 were examined in a sample of older male and female adults without cognitive impairment (n = 50). A further aim of study 2a was to operationalise executive function using principal components analysis (PCA) of several executive function tests. This approach was used firstly as a data reduction technique to overcome the task impurity problem, and secondly to examine the executive function structure of the sample for evidence of de-differentiation. Two executive function components were identified as a result of the PCA (EF 1 and EF 2). However, EPA, DHA, the PAI, or the EPA by PAI or DHA by PAI interactions did not account for any variance in the executive function components in subsequent hierarchical multiple regressions.

Study 2b was an exploratory correlational study designed to explore the possibility that immune and endocrine system biomarkers may act as mediators of the relationship between LCn3, PAI, the interaction between LCn3 and PAI, and executive functions. Insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), an endocrine system growth hormone, and interleukin-6 (IL-6) an immune system cytokine involved in the acute inflammatory response, have both been shown to affect cognition including executive functions. Moreover, IGF-1 and IL-6 have been shown to be antithetical in so far as chronically increased IL-6 has been associated with reduced IGF-1 levels, a relationship that has been linked to age related morbidity. Further, physical activity and LCn3 have been shown to modulate levels of both IGF-1 and IL-6. Thus, it is possible that the cognitive enhancing effects of LCn3, physical activity or their interaction are mediated by changes in the balance between IL-6 and IGF-1. Partial and non-parametric correlations were conducted in a subsample of participants from Study 2a (n = 13) to explore these relationships. Correlations of interest did not reach significance; however, the coefficients were quite large for several relationships suggesting studies with larger samples may be warranted.

In summary, the current program of research found some evidence supporting an interaction between EPA, not DHA, and higher energy expenditure via physical activity in differentiating between older adults with and without MCI. However, a RCT examining executive function in older adults with MCI found no support for increasing EPA or DHA while maintaining current levels of energy expenditure. Furthermore, a cross-sectional study examining executive function in older adults without MCI found no support for better executive function performance as a function of increased EPA or DHA consumption, greater energy expenditure via physical activity or an interaction between physical activity and either EPA or DHA. Finally, an examination of endocrine and immune system biomarkers revealed promising relationships in terms of executive function in non-MCI older adults particularly with respect to LCn3 and physical activity. Taken together, these findings demonstrate a potential benefit of increasing physical activity and LCn3 consumption, particularly EPA, in mitigating the risk of developing MCI. In contrast, no support was found for a benefit to executive function as a result of increased physical activity, LCn3 consumption or an interaction between physical activity and LCn3, in participants with and without MCI. These results are discussed with reference to previous findings in the literature including possible limitations and opportunities for future research.

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ID Code: 60968
Item Type: QUT Thesis (PhD)
Supervisor: Sullivan, Karen & Hills, Andrew
Keywords: mild cognitive impairment, MCI, executive function, physical activity, long chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid, docosahexaenoic acid
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Faculty of Health
Current > Schools > School of Psychology & Counselling
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Deposited On: 27 Jun 2013 03:22
Last Modified: 10 Sep 2015 02:35

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