A small but very interesting study of 33 elderly people suggest that intake of omega-3 fatty acids may slow a biological key process in the body's cells associated with the aging process. If the result is confirmed, it could make fish oil a big hit in anti-aging.
The purpose of the study, which was a randomized, controlled pilot study was to investigate whether chromosomal telomere shortening would be attenuated with the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA found in fish oil or in the omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid found in safflower oil.
Telomeres are a number of identical DNA sequences situated at the end of the chromosome legs in the cell nuclei. The function of the telomeres is to ensure that the cell chromosomes are not degraded or bound incorrectly when the cell divides, which can lead to cancer. Telomeres has been compared with the protective caps at the end of shoelaces to prevent them from from fraying. When a cell divides, the telomeres are shortened a little bit, and when the cell has divided so many times that the telomeres are gone, the cell dies.
A total of 44 elderly people over 65 with mild cognitive impairment were recruited. 33 completed the study, which lasted six months. The participants were randomly divided into three groups: The first group of 12 participants received a fish oil rich in EPA (1.67 g EPA and 0.16 g DHA) daily. The second group of 12 participants were given a fish oil rich in DHA (1.55 g DHA and 0.40 g EPA) daily. The third group of 9 participants were given a supplement of safflower oil rich in linoleic acid ( 2.2 g LA) daily.
Telomere shortening and the participants' individual fatty acid balance was measured using blood tests.
The results of the study showed that after six months telomere lenght shortened in all three groups, but the biggest shortening was found in group three who got linoleic acid. In the DHA and EPA group the telomere shortening was much less. An elevated level of DHA in the red blood cells was significantly associated with reduced telomere shortening in the DHA group.
The study was too small to show significant differences between the treatment groups, but it suggests that our diet (including supplements Ed.) is able to affect telomere shortening in our chromosomes.
O’Callaghan N, et al. Telomere shortening in elderly people with mild cognitive impairment may be attenuated with omega-3 fatty acid supplementation: A randomised controlled pilot study. Nutrition 2013. E-pub ahead of print.
Telomere shortening is associated with cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease, impaired cognition, accelerated aging and especially cancer.
Cancer cells may in principle live forever, because they contain the enzyme telomerase, which extends the telomere structure as the cell divide. If you insert telomerase genes in normal cells, they will not show signs of aging. Yet the length of the telomeres are not the whole explanation of the aging conundrum, but is only one of several factors.