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Healthy Aging: The Brain and Fatty Acids

by Deryck R. Persaud, Ph.D. and Alma Barranco-Mendoza, Ph.D.

Aging and Apoptosis

Aging is a natural phenomenon in nature, and it is the changes that an organism goes through from birth to maturation and eventually to death. The whole process is called a life cycle and the length of each stage varies with the organism until its eventual demise. Aging encompasses many changes that are dynamic, and this involves biological, physiological, environmental, psychological, behavioural, and social processes.1 The human body is composed of many cells, and they are all involved in the aging process. Cells die and new cells form. Each cell has limited dividing capabilities, and then they die; this process is called apoptosis.

Signs of Aging

When cells die in the human body, their effects can be readily visible. Examples of aging that are easily visible can be: loss of skin elasticity, wrinkles, liver spots, easy scarring, loss of height, etc. Other signs of aging can not be easily visible and these can be: reduced internal organ efficiency or total lack of function, a greater chance to be prone to diseases, loss of memory and difficulty in accomplishing common tasks. Loss of memory and lack of cognitive abilities are signs of brain aging. Understanding the structure and function of the brain is important if one wants to age gracefully.

Structure and Function of the Brain

The brain is composed of grey and white matter. Grey matter makes up about 40% of the brain while white matter makes up the remaining 60%. The importance of grey and white matter is clearly shown in the diagram below.

Figure 1. Percentage Composition of Grey and White Matter in the Brain. 2

Figure 1. Percentage Composition of Grey and White Matter in the Brain
The brain is composed of 40% grey matter and 60% white matter. Grey matter is involved in the processing of information while white matter is involved in the communication throughout the brain and between the various parts of the body.

Grey and White Matter: Molecular Composition

As there are many important functions that are carried out by grey and white matter, it is important these areas are kept at their optimum levels in order to carry out their functions. To maintain a healthy state the integrity of the white and grey matter the essential biomolecules that make up these structures must be maintained. Some of the significant biomolecules that make up the grey and white matter are phosphoglycerides whose main composition is fatty acids.

Fatty Acid Composition

The grey and white matter are composed of phosphoglycerides: Phosphatidylcholine PC, phosphatidylethanolamine (PE), phosphatidylserine (PS) phosphatidylinositol, and phosphatidylglycerol and sphingomyelin. These phosphoglycerides are made up of many different types of fatty acids in different amounts. The diagram below shows an example of different fatty acids present in phosphatidylethanolamine. 3

Figure 2. Fatty Acid Composition of the Phospholipids of Phosphatidylethanolamine in Grey and White Matter.

Figure 2. Fatty Acid Composition of the Phospholipids of Phosphatidylethanolamine in Grey and White Matter.
Grey matter has higher quantities of stearic, docosahexaenoic (DHA), and arachidonic acid. White matter has greater amounts of linoleic, alpha-linolenic, 20:1 + 18:3 (n-3) and 22:4 (n-6).

Maintaining a Healthy Brain

Maintaining a healthy brain and aging gracefully means that it is important to provide the building blocks of the grey and white matter. Eating healthy will help provide the important fatty acids that are used as precursors for a myriad of biochemical processes. The table below identifies a few of the fatty acids that are well known and studied and their important biological roles in the human body.

Table 1. Critical Fatty Acids in the Brain and their Functional Roles. 7

Many fatty acids are indispensable precursors of hormones and biomolecules in the immune and anti-inflammatory system.



Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)

Precursor of omega-3 fatty acids. Synthesis of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), prostaglandins 3 (hormone that regulates ocular pressure, anti-inflammatory activities and inhibits tumour cell proliferation), leukotrienes (affects smooth muscles, stimulates vascular permeability and activates leukocytes. 4

Docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3, DHA)

​Maintains the structural and functional integrity of cell membranes. Important for cognitive and mental functions. Precursor of resolvins and protectins (mediators in the inflammatory process as well as having neuroprotective benefits. 5

Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)

​Healthy aging. Essential for neuronal, retinal, and immune functions. 6

​Linoleic acid(LA)

​Source of energy. Maintains membrane fluidity. Precursor of omega-6 fatty acids. Production of gamma-linolenic and arachidonic acid. Prostaglandins synthesis. 7

Medium Chain triglycerides (MCT with C6-C12 chain fatty acids)

​Energy Sources. Regulation of glucose and lipid metabolism.8 Possible use in Alzheimer’s treatment.

Sources of High-Quality Fatty Acids

The quest for nutrients (natural foods, supplements, pharmaceutical agents) that supply these critical fatty acids for optimum development of the brain, as well as those needed for optimum brain aging, is an essential topic. People are living longer and want to maintain a healthy lifestyle and age gracefully. In addition, a healthy aging population means that there will be less burden on individual finances to maintain the body in a healthy, active state. Natural food sources of fatty acids are:

  • Fish and other kinds of seafood

  • Nuts and seeds (e.g., flax, chia, walnuts),

  • Plant oils (flaxseed, soybean, canola)

  • Fortified foods (eggs, yoghourt)

  • Dietary supplements: A complete combination of several dietary supplements (omega 3, omega 6, omega 7, omega 9, palmitic acid, stearic acid, MCT with C6-C12 chain fatty acids, and vitamins A, D, E, and K. Make sure to maintain the recommended ratios 9 ) or an equivalent already balanced full-spectrum fatty acid supplement (like NeuroActiv™ Oil, which already contains all those supplements in their appropriate ratios). Make sure that the supplements are prepared from organic virgin cold-pressed individual or blends of oils and that their source of Omega 3 is small fish (like sardines and anchovies) or krill and not large fish (like tuna, salmon, and cod), which live longer hence their livers are more likely to absorb toxins from ocean pollution.


  1. Understanding the Dynamics of the Aging Process. National Institute on Aging Website. Accessed Mar 17, 2022.

  2. Major C. Your Brain Structure – What is the Brain Made Of? Updated 2018. Accessed Mar 18, 2022.

  3. Svennerholm L. Distribution and fatty acid composition of phosphoglycerides in normal human brain. J Lipid Res. 1968;9(5):570-579.

  4. Blondeau N, Lipsky RH, Bourourou M, Duncan MW, Gorelick PB, Marini AM. Alpha-Linolenic Acid: An Omega-3 Fatty Acid with Neuroprotective Properties—Ready for Use in the Stroke Clinic? BioMed Research International. 2015;2015:e519830. doi:10.1155/2015/519830.

  5. Dyall SC. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and the brain: a review of the independent and shared effects of EPA, DPA and DHA. Front Aging Neurosci. 2015;0. doi:10.3389/fnagi.2015.00052.

  6. Serhan CN. Novel Chemical Mediators in the Resolution of Inflammation: Resolvins and Protectins. Anesthesiology Clinics of North America. 2006;24(2):341-364. doi:10.1016/j.atc.2006.01.003.

  7. Whelan J, Fritsche K. Linoleic Acid. Advances in Nutrition. 2013;4(3):311-312. doi:10.3945/an.113.003772.

  8. Ota M, Matsuo J, Ishida I, et al. Effects of a medium-chain triglyceride-based ketogenic formula on cognitive function in patients with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s disease. Neuroscience Letters. 2019;690:232-236. doi:10.1016/j.neulet.2018.10.048.

  9. Simopoulos AP. The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy. 2002;56(8):365-379. doi:10.1016/S0753-3322(02)00253-6.

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