A half-joking remark from a record-breaking "super-centenarian” may carry little scientific significance... but her example fits with the existing evidence on fish fats and brain health.
When, at the uniquely advanced age of 115, Henrikje van Andel-Schipper was asked the secret to her record-breaking longevity and amazingly sharp mind, she attributed it, jokingly, to her daily pickled herring habit.
Her wisecrack may have hidden real substance… and the recently published results of an examination of Ms. van Andel-Schipper’s brain provide ample motivation for scientists to probe the links between diet and risk of dementia.
Like salmon and sardines, herring are very high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been associated with reduced risk of dementia and depression in many epidemiological studies.
And the association between omega-3s and brain health was strengthened recently by the exciting results of a small clinical trial, in which omega-3 supplements were seen to ease Alzheimer’s symptoms (We'll tell you about it in our next issue).
Ms. van Andel-Schipper’s remarkably good performance on mental tests conducted in 2003 made headlines when she passed away in 2005.
But the equally remarkable results of her autopsy were only released last month.
Dutch woman’s example adds hope for slowing brain aging with diet
In 1972, when she was a spry 82-year-old, Ms. van Andel-Schipper donated her body to Holland’s University Medical Centre Groningen to be studied after death.
In 2003—when she was "only” 113 years old, and still two active years away from her death—the Dutch doctors tested Ms. van Andel-Schipper’s mental capacities.
To the astonishment of Dr. Gert Holstege and his colleagues, Ms. van Andel-Schipper’s general mental performance was above average for healthy adults 40 to 55 years younger than her (i.e., people aged 60 to 75).
And the doctors who performed an autopsy found her body and brain amazingly healthy (den Dunnen WF et al. 2008):
- Her arteries were almost entirely free of atherosclerotic plaque, which is associated with dementia as well as cardiovascular disease.
- Her brain had almost none of the beta-amyloid plaques, tau tangles, or vascular changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
- She had just as many neurons in the region tested (locus ceruleus) as in the brains of healthy people aged 60 to 80 years old. Loss of neurons in the locus ceruleus is linked to Parkinson’s disease, depression, panic disorder, anxiety, and poor sleep.
As they wrote, "Our observations indicate that the limits of human cognitive function extend far beyond the range that is currently enjoyed by most individuals and that brain disease, even in super-centenarians, is not inevitable.”
Lifestyle, attitude, and genetics matter
A daily fish (or fish oil) diet alone doesn't guarantee lifelong mental acuity.
In addition to a long, mentally engaging career as a teacher, Ms. van Andel-Schipper had a mentally engaging retirement hobby (needlework) and a substantial social life to the end of her life.
She may also have benefited from a dementia-deterring genetic profile (The autopsy did not cover that component of dementia risk).
But her herring habit should encourage more research into the links between diet and risk of dementia.
For more on the associations between diet and brain health, search our Newsletter archive for "brain” or "depression”.
Herring and sardines: Feed ‘em to humans, not farmed fish
Fish and algae are the only significant sources of long-chain omega-3s (EPA and DHA), which perform critical functions in the body, and are located in our cell membranes.
(Green leafy plants and animals raised on grasses contain small amounts of short-chain omega-3s, about five percent of which the body converts to long-chain omega-3s, with most of the rest being burned as fuel.)
Lean fish such as sea bass, cod, haddock, hake, and sole have a fat content of less than 2.5 percent.
In contrast, herring, mackerel, sardines, tuna and salmon boast fat contents approximating 12 percent, much of which comes in the form of omega-3 fatty acids.
In addition to benefitting vascular health and reducing the chance of irregular heart rhythms, omega-3s appear to reduce the chance of stroke, sudden cardiac death and second heart attacks.
Sadly, much of the world’s herring harvest is fed to farmed fish, including farmed salmon.
A comment by maritime historian Mike Smylie, author of Herring: A History of the Silver Darlings makes the point: "This is an absolutely crazy situation, when good edible fish is being processed instead of being presented to the human food chain” (Vallely P 2005).
- den Dunnen WF, Brouwer WH, Bijlard E, Kamphuis J, van Linschoten K, Eggens-Meijer E, Holstege G. No disease in the brain of a 115-year-old woman. Neurobiol Aging. 2008 Aug;29(8):1127-32. Epub 2008 Jun 4.
- Roberts RO, Geda YE, Knopman DS, Cha RH, Pankratz VS, Boeve BF, Ivnik RJ, Tangalos EG, Petersen RC, Rocca WA. The Mayo Clinic Study of Aging: design and sampling, participation, baseline measures and sample characteristics. Neuroepidemiology. 2008;30(1):58-69. Epub 2008 Feb 7.