The number of seniors in the world is growing steadily which means a surge in problems like cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory illnesses, overweight, diabetes, rheumatism, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. These diseases that have a widespread impact on human lives and are a burden to society are often linked to chronic inflammation. A group of scientists therefore decided to look closer at studies that have found a positive effect of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA on cognitive functioning, maintenance of muscle mass, and prevention and treatment of a host of serious diseases that are related to ageing. It is vital to start supplementing early and to take the right doses, according to the new review article published in Nutrients.
Most of us can expect to enjoy a long life and for that reason we have a desire to keep as well as possible both physically and mentally. That way, we can look forward to a wonderful golden age and stay mentally alert and physically active. Of course, this means that we must take good care of ourselves, and this is where diet plays a determining role. It turns out that elevated levels of the omega-3 fatty acids that are found in fish are linked to healthier ageing and a longer life expectancy. But why is it so important to get the right type of omega-3 fatty acids, and why is that modern diets contain far too little omega-3 and way too much omega-6?
The healthy balance between omega-3 and omega-6
Omega-3 and omega-6 are essential fatty acids that we need from our diets. There are different kinds. Oily fish and fish oil are the primary sources of omega-3, while plant oils
are the best way to get omega-6.
Our cell membranes contain EPA and DHA plus a type of omega-6 called AA (arachidonic acid). These fatty acids are bound to phospholipids and are involved in a host of different physiological functions that are of importance to cell signaling, gene activation, and synthesis of prostaglandins that can launch or arrest inflammatory processes. The known molecular biologist Bruce Lipton likes to think of a cell membrane as the cell’s brain because it is the cell membrane that sends signals instructions to the cell.
It is vital to have the right balance between omega-3 and omega-6 in the body. We need to be able to fight infections and here arachidonic acid (omega-6) initiates different inflammatory processes by means of pro-inflammatory type 2 prostaglandins (PGE2). However, it is also important to stop the inflammation at some point before it gets out of control. This is where omega-3 fatty acids and another type of prostaglandins called PGE3 come into the picture. Increasing levels of both EPA and DHA in inflammatory cell membranes helps displace (pro-inflammatory) arachidonic acid.
In other words, having too little omega-3 combined with too much omega-6 sets the stage for inflammation, which is the common thread in most chronic diseases. Also, chronic low-grade inflammation that gets out of control is associated with an increased rate of ageing.
The omega-3 fatty acids are even important for the brain, cardiovascular system, muscle mass, and stable blood sugar levels. The scientists behind the new review article address the importance of getting plenty of omega-3 throughout life, and they also underline how important it is to take larger doses for regulating chronic inflammation that is seen with many types of disease.
Did you know that around 60 percent of the brain’s dry weight is made up of lipids like cholesterol, omega-3 and omega-6?
Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
The increasing number of seniors means that more and more people suffer from cognitive decline and dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is the leading cause of dementia and is a slowly progressing disease that typically results in death after 7-10 years. There is every reason in the world to prevent both dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, which includes making sure to get enough essential fatty acids.
Science is mainly focused on DHA because it makes cell membranes pliable, which is important for the ability of cells to communicate and carry out their tasks. DHA is a predominant fatty acid in the grey matter of the brain and in the neurons. DHA also promotes a type of enzyme activity called NOS (nitric oxide synthase activity) that is important for memory and learning.
Individuals with high omega-3 levels in their blood have better blood flow through the parts of the brain that are related to learning, language, memory, and other cognitive skills.
The amount of DHA in the brain decreases with age and that may be related to loss of cognitive skills. Several studies have shown that concentrations of DHA in the brain are lower than normal in Alzheimer’s patients than in healthy individuals.
Research also shows a link between adequate intake of DHA from e.g. oily fish and Mediterranean-style diets and lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. There is also evidence that supplementing with EPA and DHA can prevent or delay cognitive decline, especially if you start early. For the record, it is a good idea to get more than 1,000 mg of EPA and DHA per day and to make sure to take this amount for a long period, preferably throughout life.
B vitamins are also important for preventing cognitive decline. A study shows that you must have plenty of EPA and DHA in your system to make the B vitamins work properly.
Fish oil and its importance for your brain
Muscle weakness and senior fragility
Loss of muscle mass and muscle strength starts around the age of 40 years. This phenomenon is known as sarcopenia and leads to impaired mobility and increased frailty. Depending on the severity of the condition, it increases the risk of disease, hospitalization, and early death. The figure also changes, typically resulting in thinner arms and legs and a flaccid bottom.
Sarcopenia is caused by several factors such as neuromotor dysfunction, physical inactivity, hormonal changes, and poor nutrition.
It is also believed that chronic low-grade inflammation related to ageing plays a role in the development of sarcopenia, especially the type of sarcopenia that is characterized by thin limbs and enlarged waist circumference. This type of sarcopenia even increases the risk of cancer and comorbidities.
Pro-inflammatory cytokines are also involved in the loss of muscle mass. Omega-3 fatty acids are therefore believed to help reduce inflammation and promote muscle protein synthesis, muscle strength, and muscle function in general.
The maintenance and remodeling of healthy muscle tissue is vital for your health and also greatly increases your chances of recovering after hospitalization and surgery.
One study showed that supplementation with 1,500 mg of DHA and 1,860 mg of EPA daily for six months helped older men and women increase their muscle volume, muscle strength, and grip strength without affecting their weight.
Other studies have demonstrated a similar trend. The researchers therefore conclude that daily supplementation with around 3,000 mg of EPA and DHA or more has a positive effect on muscle building and physical performance in old age. A similar effect has not been observed with lower doses. What is also important for maintaining muscle mass is to get plenty of protein, to be physically active, and to use your muscles.
Cardiovascular disease and heart death
On a global scale, cardiovascular disease and coronary occlusion are the leading causes of death. People who take fish oil supplements have a lower risk of atherosclerosis and heart failure compared with those who do not take them, according to a large meta-analysis from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, USA. The study revealed that the higher dose you take the more it benefits your health. Atherosclerosis is a condition that develops gradually with millions of deaths annually. However, minor changes of diet and lifestyle can make a huge difference that improves quality of life and cuts deaths.
Omega-3 fatty acids and their effect on the cardiovascular system
Cancer is a broad term for uncontrolled, malignant cell growth. It typically takes years from the time the first cell changes until tumors appear. The regular body mechanisms designed to destroy diseased cells don’t function properly, and even with improved screening methods and therapies, cancer is on the rise. The ageing process also increases the risk of cancer and so do factors like diet and lifestyle. Many cancer patients lose weight before their disease is diagnosed. An estimated 50 percent of cancer patients or so develop cachexia, a condition characterized by anorexia, impaired nutrient utilization, loss of muscle mass, loss of fat mass, and weight loss in general. Cachexia impairs quality of life and even reduces the patient’s ability to respond to chemotherapy or to survive.
Cancer cachexia is an overlooked condition that is not properly addressed. The exact mechanisms are not known all that well but it appears that low-grade inflammation is involved in most cases.
Cancer patients often have low levels of EPA and DHA in their plasma and that may even contribute to their disease. Also, EPA and DHA can control the inflammatory process in cancer patients, which is typically measured by looking at levels of cytokine and C-reactive protein (CRP).
EPA and DHA are also believed to be able to regulate the development of cancer and related effects such as sarcopenia and cachexia. Supplementation with these essential fatty acids may also reduce the side effects of chemotherapy and help improve quality of life.
The main role of omega-3 fatty acids in terms of cancer prevention appears to be their ability to inhibit inflammation. A Polish study published in In Vivo showed that women who hardly ever ate fish and were overweight had a greater risk of getting breast cancer than women who were slim and ate fish more often.
It has been shown that Inuits have a very low rate of prostate cancer and that is believed to be because of their high consumption of omega-3 fatty acids from seal, salmon, and other types of seafood. Another study of men with prostate cancer showed that the content of omega-3 fatty acids in prostate cells is determining for how the disease evolves.
Epidemiological evidence shows that colon cancer patients with high intake of omega-3 fatty acid have lower mortality. According to the new review article, high-dosed omega-3 supplements (2,500 mg of EPA and DHA or more) are useful for cancers or in combination with chemotherapy as a way of preventing loss of muscle mass and improving quality of life.
How much omega-3 do we need?
International experts recommend the following:
Omega-3 fatty acids from oily fish or from supplements?
According to the official dietary guidelines, we should ideally eat fish several times a week (at least 350 mg of omega-3 with at least 200 grams coming from oily fish that are particularly rich in omega-3). It is also recommended to choose fish from clean and pure waters and to avoid predatory fish that contain mercury and other environmental toxins. Farmed fish have a lower omega-3 content due to the fact that they get unnatural fodder.
For those who do not like oily fish or simply don’t eat enough it is a good idea to take a fish oil supplement. Fish oils based on free fatty acids have better absorption than other types of fish oil. Make sure that the product you take is within the safe margin for peroxide count and environmental toxins.
Did you know that you get around 1 gram of omega-3 from a herring fillet and 3-4 grams from a free-range salmon steak
Why do modern diets contain too little omega-3 and too much omega-6?
For millions of years, our ancestors have consumed a lot of EPA and DHA from oily fish, shellfish, and other types of seafood. Also, people did not use to get so much omega-6. But the intake of omega-6 has increased drastically through the last centuries and that is because of increased consumption of plant oils from soy, corn, sunflower, and safflower that are particularly high in omega-6. Margarine, deep-fried foods, ready meals, and junk food also contain a lot of omega-6. In the Stone Age, the omega-6/omega-3 ratio was approximately 4:1. Now, it is closer to 20:1 because of our diet and because of factors such as modern farming methods and the industrial refinement of food that has really made the problem worse. This has a negative effect on our health.
We get less omega-3 because of our moderate fish consumption
Barbara Troesch et al. Expert Opinion on benefits of Long-Chain Omega-3 Fatty Acids (DHA and EPA) in Aging and Clinical Nutrition. Nutrients 2020
Heidi TM Lai et al. Serial circulating omega-3 polysaturated fatty acids and healthy ageing among older adults in the Cardiovascular Health Study: Prospective cohort study. BMJ, 2018
James J. Dicolantonio and James H. O´Keefe. The Importance of Marine Omega-3s for Brain Development and the Prevention and treatment of Behavior, Mood, and Other Brain Disorders. Nutrients. 2020
Nutrition Insight. Neuroimaging Highlights Role of Omega-3 in Preventing Cognitive Decline. 2017
Oulhaj et al: Omega-3 Fatty Acid Status Enhances The Prevention of Cognitive Decline by B-vitamins in Mild Cognitive Impairment. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. 2016
Yang Hu et al. Marine Omega-3 Supplementation and Cardiovascular Disease: An Undated Meta-Analysis of 13 Randomized Controlled Trials Involving 127477 Participants. Journal of the American Heart Association. 2019
Sarawoti Khadge et al. Long-chain omega-3 polysaturated fatty acids decrease mammary tumor growth, multiorgan metastatis and enhance survival. 2018
Hanane Moussa et al. Omega-3 Fatty Acids Survey in Men under Active Surveillance for Prostate Cancer: from Intake to Prostate Tissue Level. Nutrients 2019
Bruce Lipton. Intelligente Celler. Borgen 2016
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