Omega-3 fatty acids have been singled out for improving bone and joint health, as well as mental health and cognitive function, fighting inflammation, and reducing risk for cardiovascular disease, all of which are major issues affecting aging individuals. Most of these things start happening when you get older in part because of genetics and lifestyle, but also because our bodies start slowing down, which affects the uptake and metabolism of key nutrients.
Fatty fish is virtually always on every health expert’s list of top anti-aging foods. Why? Because fatty fish like salmon and mackerel contain the omega-3s EPA and DHA. These special fatty acids are found in each cell of the human body, and they serve very important functions such as keeping cell membranes flexible and healthy. The consequence of these functions are healthier tissues and organs, which translates to benefits like a healthy heart and brain as well as healthy skin, to name a few.
Evidence Supporting Aging Benefits of Omega-3s
A study published in the October 2018 edition of the British Medical Journal found an association between higher blood levels of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA, DPA, and DHA and “healthy aging.” The report was authored by Dr. Heidi Lai and her colleagues and was based on an analysis of the Cardiovascular Health Study (CHS), a prospective observational study in a large cohort of Americans whose average age was about 74 when the study began in 1989. Its original purpose was to identify risk factors related to the onset of coronary heart disease and stroke in older people, but as the cohort has aged, CHS has become an important study of the aging process in general.
For this study, researchers tracked more than 2,600 adults from 1992 to 2006 to see if they continued to live without chronic diseases and without mental or physical problems. Blood levels of the long chain omega-3s EPA, DPA, and DHA, as well as the short-chain omega-3 ALA, were measured three times over the ensuing years and averaged to give a long-term estimate of omega-3 status.
When investigators tallied up all the “unhealthy” things that typically happen to people as they age—cardiovascular disease, cancer, cognitive or physical dysfunction, lung disease, chronic kidney disease, in addition to death from any other cause besides these listed—individuals who did NOT develop these conditions were defined as “healthy agers.” So, the question became, “did the healthy agers have higher blood omega-3 levels than those people who aged “poorly.”
When they finished their research, they found that, yes, higher overall levels of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA, DHA, and DPA, but not of the short-chain ALA, were found in those individuals who exhibited the healthy aging pattern, and specifically an 18% lower chance of unhealthy aging.
The authors concluded their findings support guidelines for increased dietary consumption of long-chain omega-3s in older adults. Furthermore, these findings confirm previous reports from the same research team that there was a lower risk for death in those subjects in the CHS with higher levels of long-chain omega-3s. That is, if you compared the people in the top quartile (i.e., top 25% of the population) of omega-3 levels to those in the bottom quartile, those with the highest levels were about 30% less likely to die during the follow-up period. These people actually lived an astonishing 2.2 years longer after age 65 than those with the lowest levels. These are compelling findings that strongly link omega-3s with better overall health.
Omega-3 Index Studies Indicate Greater Longevity with Higher Levels
OmegaQuant, a lab that measures and analyzes fatty acid levels, has performed two studies to see if higher Omega-3 Index levels are predictors of greater longevity. The Omega-3 Index is the red blood cell level of EPA and DHA. It is a different marker of omega-3 status than used in the CHS discussed previously, but the two measures are very highly correlated so they both are useful measures of omega-3 status.
The first study was published in 2017 and looked at the Omega-3 Index levels of more than 6,500 postmenopausal women (age 70) who participated in the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study. WHIMS is a large, prospective cohort study that has been following the health outcomes of a group of U.S. women for more than 20 years.
Compared to those with a low Omega-3 Index (<4%), women with optimal Omega-3 Index levels (>8%) had a 31% reduced risk for death from any cause (heart attack, stroke, cancer, etc.), leading to the conclusion that having an Omega-3 Index in the protective range (8-12%) is related to a longer and healthier life.
The second study was also reported in the Journal of Clinical Lipidology and measured the Omega-3 Index in 2,500 participants (average age 66, men and women) in the offspring cohort of the Framingham Heart Study. (This cohort is largely made up of the children of the original Framingham study, which began in 1948.) We again compared an individual’s risk for developing certain diseases and for dying as a function of the Omega-3 Index.
We found that the risk for death from any cause was reduced by about 33% when comparing those with the highest Omega-3 Index to those with the lowest, confirming both the WHIMS study and the CHS study. Although we primarily focused on total mortality (death from any cause) as an endpoint, we also tracked death from cardiovascular disease, cancer and other causes. In these analyses, we found significant associations between Omega-3 Index levels and a risk for any CVD event—fatal or not, heart attack or stroke—with higher levels being protective.
In the Framingham study, we asked a novel question: How did the Omega-3 Index compare with a well-known heart disease risk factor like serum cholesterol as a predictor of risk for not only cardiovascular events but more importantly, death from any cause?
In this comparison, the Omega-3 Index became a better predictor for death from any cause—and even death from heart disease—than cholesterol. This is not to say that measuring cholesterol levels is unimportant; it IS to say that measuring the Omega-3 Index is just as important as measuring cholesterol levels.
Unlike a cholesterol test, you don’t need a doctor to obtain an Omega-3 Index test. In fact, most doctors won’t automatically test your omega-3 level during annual well visits, even though most people don’t get enough of these nutrients from their diets. And given omega-3s’ importance in preventing so many of the diseases we face as we age, there is no time like the present to make sure you are getting enough of the right omega-3s and tracking your Omega-3 Index along the way.
About the author: William S. Harris, PhD, is an internationally recognized expert on omega-3 fatty acids and how they can improve human health. He published his first study on the effects of salmon oil on serum lipids in humans (1980). Since that time, he has been the recipient of five NIH grants for studies on the effects of omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) on human health. He has more than 300 publications relating to fatty acids, including omega-3s, in medical literature and was an author on two American Heart Association scientific statements on fatty acids, both published in the journal Circulation. Harris is a professor in the Department of Medicine in the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota and the president of OmegaQuant.