When it comes to longevity protocols, we often tend to be seduced by the latest trends —i.e. NAD+, Spermidine— and rightly so: longevity science is advancing very rapidly and with it our understanding of the mechanisms of cellular aging. But this doesn’t mean we should overlook some true and tried supplements. This week we update you on the latest spate of research around omega-3s and longevity. Spoiler alert: the evidence of a positive correlation between high omega-3 intake and healthspan seems to be mounting…
3 Recent Research Studies Confirm Benefits of Omega-3s for Longevity
Ensuring ample consumption of EPA & DHA omega-3 oils through supplementation should be a staple of your longevity protocol. Since the 1970s scientists have been interested in better understanding the role of Omega-3 fatty acids in healthspan inspired by the empirical observation of a link between high consumption of oily fish among specific populations (i.e. the Intuit, specific areas in Japan) and health markers such as relatively lower rates of cardiovascular disease and longer lifespans. In the late 1990s and early 2000s results from studies of the benefits of omega-3 in the context of different disease conditions were mostly mixed, with many efforts resulting in no observed effects. However, a spate of recent studies have all concluded that there is a correlation between levels of omega-3 in red blood cells and all-cause mortality. Here we take a closer look at the most recent findings.
A Brief Refresher on PUFAa (polyunsaturated fatty acids)
Dietary fats are one of the main types of macronutrients found in our food. Composed of a glycerol molecule attached to three fatty acid chains, fats are categorized by the presence or absence of double bonds referred to as their “saturation”. Fats that have no double bonds are saturated. Fats with one double bond are monounsaturated, and fats with two or more double bonds are polyunsaturated.
Source: Jeremiah Farias Nutrition
Omega-3s fall into the category of polyunsaturated fats. They’re liquid at room temperature, found in high concentrations in nuts and fish oils and have been linked to lower total cholesterol and increased HDL (good) cholesterol across various feeding studies over the years.
Why Do We Need Omega-3s?
Generally, our bodies are able to synthesize the fat components we need in order to maintain normal cell structure and function. There are two exceptions to this rule: one is α-Linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3, and the other is linoleic acid (LA), an omega-6. Because we cannot synthesize them directly, ALA and LA are considered to be essential fatty acids (EFAs) which we must obtain through diet.
The primary sources of ALA are nuts, seeds, and seed oils (e.g.: chia, flax, soybean, walnut). These dietary sources also happen to be high in LA, creating competition between the two for desaturation enzymes. This fact has an important implication when it comes to omega-3s. Even though eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are considered non-essential fats, meaning we have the ability to synthesize them, the competition for desaturation enzymes between ALA and LA makes the rate of conversion too low to satisfy our needs.
That means we need to make sure we are getting enough EPA and DHA from our food. This in turn poses a different challenge: EPA & DHA are primarily found in oily fish (i.e. salmon, sardines), algae and some nuts, all food staples that are not consumed in high enough amounts in the standard American diet. In other words, for many of us, getting the EPA & DHA we need is likely to require supplementation.
EPA and DHA are both critical for sustained health. For example, EPA is used to make signaling molecules called eicosanoids that help reduce inflammation and regulate a variety of other processes like cell growth, blood pressure, and pain. DHA is the most abundant fatty acid found in the brain (40%) and retina (60%) where it acts a key component of cell membranes and modulates nutrient transfer in and out of the cells. Both EPA and DHA are also important for helping us fight against the hallmarks of aging such altered intracellular communication and decreased nutrient sensing. Additionally, EPA and DHA have also been implicated as being cardioprotective and reducing an individual's risk for heart disease. Accordingly, adequate intakes of EPA and DHA are key for maintaining health long-term.
Conclusions from the most recent research on omega-3s.
Most previous research on omega-3s has primarily focused on the potential effects of ALA, EPA, and DHA on improving treatment outcomes of CVD risk reduction, cancer prevention, dementia/Alzheimer’s prevention and treatment of depression. For an in-depth review of the literature, check out our article “The link between dietary fats and longevity.”
More recently, the research has shifted a bit to examining the idea of using circulating blood levels of omega-3s as a a predictive marker of health outcomes. One good example is this 2017 prospective cohort studybased on data from the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study (N=6,501). This analysis examined red blood cell (RBC) levels of EPA and DHA (a measure known as the omega-3 index) as well as linoleic (LA) and arachidonic (ARA) fatty acids and their correlation with all-cause mortality in women ages 65-80 (follow-up of nearly 15 years). The main conclusion: women with higher levels of EPA and DHA were associated with a reduced risk (8%) of death from any cause.
These findings have been corroborated by two additional studies that were recently concluded. The first of these was published in Nature in April of this year. This pooled analysis looked at data on the circulating levels of long chain omega-3s and their correlation to all-cause mortality across17 prospective cohort studies (N=42,466) with a median follow-up of 16 years. Remarkably, the study showed that all-cause mortality was 15-18% lower in the cohort at the 90th percentile of circulating omega-3 fatty acids vs. those in the 10th percentile. In other words the data shows a big swing in mortality rates based on a person’s omega-3 index.
Associations of circulating long-chain n-3 PUFA levels with all-cause mortality: nonlinear dose-response meta-analysis in the Fatty Acids and Outcomes Research Consortium. Hazard ratios and cohort-specific quantiles are presented in the vertical and horizontal axis, respectively.
The second study was published earlier this month and consists of a systematic review and meta analysis of the effects of EPA monotherapy as well as dual EPA+DHA therapy on CVD outcomes across 38 trials (N=1489,051). The authors found that heart patients treated with omega-3 therapy had lower risk of negative CVD outcomes. Among these findings were that EPA/DHA therapy showed a 7% reduction in CVD mortality and an 8% reduction in CVD events (e.g., heart attack, stroke). Interestingly, the researchers found that heart patients who received EPA monotherapy had even higher reductions in events, including an 18% reduction in CVD mortality and a 27% reduction in CVD events.
Taken together, these studies seem to affirm the place or omega-3 supplementation in any approach to healthspan management.
How Do I Know If I’m Getting Enough Omega-3?
Omega-3 requirements vary based on age and gender. This table from the NIH Office of Dietary Supplements provides requirements for omega-3 in babies up to 12 months and ALA requirements from individuals older than 1 year.
Severe dietary deficiency of Omega-3, and specifically EFAs, tends to be rare and usually occurs in malnourished infants. Symptoms of an omega-3 deficiency include dry skin, brittle hair, thin nails, excessive fatigue or insomnia, difficulty concentrating or paying attention, and joint pain to name a few. These symptoms are nonspecific but if you have a highly restricted diet or are a picky eater and have this collection of symptoms, you might want to ask your doctor to check your levels of omega-3.
As discussed previously, chances are you are not consuming enough omega-3s in your diet. Just to gauge it, consider that a serving of salmon (3.5 ozs) contains 2.3 grams of omega-3s, slightly more than the amount recommended daily (check out the omega-3 content of other EPA/DHA rich foods). Moreover, we like to remind ourselves that this “one-size-fits-all” intake recommendations are really just indications, as we all process food differently and may require different levels of nutrients based on our individual metabolism.
Perhaps the best way to determine if your EPA/DHA levels are optimal, is simply to measure your Omega-3 index. Specifically, this maker measures the EPA/DHA content of your red blood cell membranes. For example, if you have 64 fatty acids in a cell membrane and 3 are EPA and DHA, then you would have an Omega-3 Index of 4.6%. According to Dr. William Harris, one of the world’s leading scientists on the effects of omega-3s and author of two of the studies we cited, “an omega-3 Index of 8% or higher is ideal. However, most consumers hover around 6% or below. And unfortunately in the US, most people are at 4% or below – the highest risk zone. Being in the highest risk zone translates to a 90% higher risk of sudden cardiac death.”
There is a lot of information to process when it comes to dietary fats, but when we think of omega-3 the most important takeaway is that consuming adequate amounts (whether through food or supplements or both) is crucial for maintaining our health and enabling us to live long into the future.
- Click here for the NIH’s comprehensive list of omega-3 fat sources including a breakdown of ALA, EPA, and DHA in g/serving.
- If you are interested in measuring your Omega Index click here. Get your Omega Index reading here.
- Looking for the best EPA/DHA supplement? Look no further: “We spent 40 hours researching the pest omega-3 supple,ents so you wouldn’t have to”
Share your experiences with omega-3 with us or anything we may have left out: firstname.lastname@example.org
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