New Research Finds Saturated Fats Can Lower Change of Cognitive Function Over Time

You don’t have to be scared of eating fats anymore. Thanks to Danni Li, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, her research focused on the effects of very long-chain saturated fatty acids and found a positive association with a lower change of cognitive function over 20 years. 

In this particular study, recently published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, there were more than 3,000 participants—one of the biggest national studies conducted on the correlation between cognitive change and fatty acids. The research data was based on the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) Study, in which participants were followed for over 20 years. Each participant provided blood samples at the study baseline to monitor different types of fatty acids, which was used to correlate mid-life fatty acids in blood with changes in cognitive function over time.

“Usually people think that saturated fatty acids are bad for your health,” Dr. Li said. “That’s why people avoid fats and have concerns about saturated fatty acids, but our study actually shows that those very long-chain saturated fatty acids are good for cognitive function.”

Dr. Li says saturated fatty acids are very abundant in the body and work as building blocks for cell membranes and energy sources.

“When you think about saturated fatty acids, there are different kinds depending on the carbon chain length. Some of them have more carbon molecules and are defined as very long-chain saturated fatty acids, which have about 23 carbons versus regular saturated fatty acids with around 18 carbons,” Dr. Li said. “It seems like long-chain saturated fatty acids have different functionalities than the regular chain ones.”

Very long-chain saturated fatty acids are found in nuts and dairy products. Dr. Li also discovered that very long-chain saturated fatty acids’ beneficial effect on slowing cognitive decline is in the same magnitude as OMEGA-3 fatty acids, which are known to be helpful for cognitive function. This means people who do not like fish and salmon, which are high in OMEGA-3 fatty acids, can get the same cognitive benefit by eating nuts and dairy products.

“At this point, I don’t think there is enough knowledge to know why very long-chain saturated fatty acids are a benefit for cognitive function,” Dr. Li said. “Therefore, I am hoping that this study triggers others to conduct their own research to find the reasoning behind why this is helpful.”