Everyone has the desire to stay as youthful as possible, to be healthy, and to be able to enjoy senior life with good cognitive functioning and the ability to remain physically active. Of course, this requires that we take good care of ourselves, and a healthy diet is extremely important. It turns out that having high blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which we primarily get from oily fish, is linked to a better chance of healthy aging and a longer life. There is a big difference between omega-3 fatty acids from animal sources and plant sources, according to a large population study that is published in the British Medical Journal.
Although people all over the globe tend to live longer, there are at the same time many older individuals, who suffer from atherosclerosis, rheumatism, dementia, and other chronic illnesses. Nonetheless, there is increasing focus on finding ways to stay healthy in senior life and remain mentally alert and physically active as long as possible.
Studies of omega-3 fatty acids show different results
According to earlier studies, polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids from oily fish and certain plant oils have a positive effect on the body and may help promote healthy ageing. However, the results of these studies are ambiguous, which is primarily because plant oils and oily fish contain different types of omega-3.
A team of American scientists, headed by Heidi Lai at Tufts University in Boston, USA, decided to study the relation between blood levels of the different omega-3 fatty acids and healthy aging of older people.
ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), a type of omega-3 that is found in linseed oil and certain other plant oils, is normally converted into the longer-chained omega-3 fatty acids, EPA, DHA, and DPA, in a multi-step process. EPA, DHA, and DPA have numerous physiological functions in the body, but many people have difficulty with converting ALA into these different types of omega-3 because of slow enzymatic processes. This may be because, for generations, humans’ primary source of omega-3 has been fish and shellfish, and the different enzyme processes needed for converting plant-based omega-3 may eventually have become obsolete.
Different sources of omega-3 fatty acids:
ALA (alpha-linolenic acid):
EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), DPA (docosapentaenoic acid), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid):
The scientists measured blood levels of ALA, EPA, DPA, and DHA
The study included 2,622 adults, who participated in a large health study with focus on cardiovascular disease (the US Cardiovascular Health Study) during the period 1992-2015. At baseline, the average age was 74 years. 63% of the participants were female, and 11% of the participants were non-white. Blood levels of the different omega-3 fatty acids were measured in all participants at study start and again after six and 13 years. The measurements included ALA, EPA, DPA, and DHA. The main source of ALA was oil from nuts, seeds, and leafy greens. The main source of EPA, DPA, and DHA was oily fish
Most of the seniors felt unhealthy, especially those that did not eat fish
The study participants were then divided into five groups, based on their blood levels of omega-3. The scientists went through all the journals and diagnoses and found that 89% of the volunteers felt that they had an unhealthy senior life with various ailments and diagnoses. At the same time, 11% of the volunteers felt that they were aging in a healthy way, considering that they functioned well physically and mentally and did not suffer from any chronic ailments.
The scientists adjusted for financial and social factors plus other factors and could see that the quintile with the highest blood levels of EPA from fish had a 24% lower risk of unhealthy and disease-ridden aging compared to the quintile that had the lowest levels of EPA. EPA appears to be the omega-3 fatty acid that has the greatest influence on healthy aging.
With regard to DPA, the scientists observed that the three quintiles with the highest blood levels of this specific omega-3 fatty acid had an 18-21% lower risk of disease-ridden aging. However, they did find that blood levels of DHA and plant-based ALA was associated with healthy aging.
On the other hand, the scientist found through additional analyses that the effect of the different omega-3 fatty acids remained unchanged for as long as 22 years.
|EPA has the most positive influence on aging processes|
Why do EPA and DPA reduce morbid aging processes?
The American research team underlines that EPA and DPA can help control blood pressure and counteract inflammation. Earlier studies show that inflammation sets the stage for an array of diseases – including atherosclerosis, cardiovascular disease, rheumatism, type 2 diabetes, respiratory illnesses, periodontal disease, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer, all of which are common in old age. EPA seems to be most effective for inhibiting inflammation.
Inflammation impairs quality of life and causes premature death
On a global scale, three in five people die because of diseases associated with chronic inflammation such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, chronic respiratory illnesses, overweight, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
Many people reach an older age but are not necessarily healthier
It is not exactly joyful to reach a ripe old age if you are bothered by chronic illnesses that are associated with unpleasant physical and mental symptoms and limitations. The American team of scientists therefore concludes on behalf its study that there is a need for more studies of omega-3 fatty acids and their positive effect on aging.
Find inspiration in healthy populations
It is hardly a coincidence that Japanese and Icelandic people that consume a lot of fish have the highest life expectancy and can also look forward to a healthy senior life devoid of the many illnesses that involve inflammation. It should also be noted that oily fish is a good source of vitamin D, vitamin E, selenium, and zinc, all of which have anti-inflammatory properties.
Omega-3 fatty acids from oily fish or from supplements?
We are encouraged to eat fish several times every week. Dietary guidelines suggest a minimum intake of 350 grams, and at least 200 grams should be oily fish that are particularly rich in the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. We are also advised to choose oily fish from clean waters and to avoid predatory fish like tuna that may be polluted with mercury.
For those who dislike the taste of fish or who simply don’t eat enough fish, fish oil supplementation is a great alternative. Fish oil based on free fatty acids has excellent bioavailability. Also, make sure to choose a product that is within the safe threshold for peroxide value and content of environmental toxins.
Heidi TM Lai et al. Serial circulating omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and healthy ageing among older adults in the Cardiovascular Health Study: Prospective cohort study. BMJ, 2018
Roma Pahwa; Ishwarial Jialal. Chronic Inflammation. NCBI April 2018
The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). Understanding how omega-3 dampens inflammatory reactions. ScienceDaily 2017
Search for more information...