Just as I was about to toss my fish oil supplements in the trash due to the recent study proclaiming that they do nothing to prevent cardiovascular events (heart attack, strokes, sudden cardiac death, or overall death), along comes a provocative new study that examines their effects on aging.
This study involves the effects of omega-3 fats on telomeres. Telomeres are a hot topic in science since their tendency is to shorten with age, which may be related to the diseases of aging – heart disease and cancer. A telomere is simply the end of a chromosome. They are composed of DNA and are compared to the plastic at the tips of shoelaces, sealing the chromosome ends.
As we age, the telomeres get shorter and when they get too short or unravel losing a little DNA, the cell dies. In comparison, one of the distinguishing characteristics of cancer cells is that they activate an enzyme called telomerase, which prevents telomeres from shrinking and makes these cells virtually immortal.
Participants in this study were overweight, healthy, middle-aged or older adults. Participants were given either 2.5 grams or 1.25 grams of omega-3 fish oils (EPA and DHA) or a mixture of other oils as a placebo for 4 months.
Omega-6 fatty acids come from vegetable oils, and since the 1960s, research has suggested that these oils, too, can help protect the cardiovascular system. In Western diets, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids averages about 15-1, but is generally accepted that this ratio should be lowered to 4-1 or even 2-1 for maximum health effects.
When the researchers analyzed the participants’ omega-6/omega-3 ratio in relationship to telomere lengthening, a lower ratio in both omega 3 groups was clearly associated with lengthened telomeres compared to the placebo group.
Oxidative stress is defined an imbalance between the generation of free radical damage to cells and the defenses against them (antioxidants). The researchers also measured levels of compounds called F2-isoprostanes to determine levels of oxidative stress, linked to age-related diseases. Both omega-3 groups together showed an average overall 15 percent reduction in oxidative stress compared to effects seen in the placebo group.
A previous study found that as an inflammatory marker called interleukin 6 (IL-6) decreased, telomeres lengthened. An earlier study on omega-3 fats and inflammation reported that omega-3 supplements lowered IL- 6 by 10 to 12 percent depending on the dose. By comparison, those taking a placebo saw an overall 36 percent increase in IL-6. The lead author of the study, Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser said. “This finding strongly suggests that inflammation is what’s driving the changes in the telomeres.” (Kiecolt-Glaser, et al, Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 2012; 26:988)
“The telomere finding is provocative in that it suggests the possibility that a nutritional supplement might actually make a difference in aging,” said Jan Kiecolt-Glaser, professor of psychiatry and psychology at Ohio State.
This work was supported in part by grants from the National Institutes of Health.
This study will be published online and scheduled for later print publication in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.
Ohio State University. “Omega-3 supplements may slow a biological effect of aging.” Science Daily. 1 Oct. 2023. Web 4, Oct. 2012