Study: Omega-3 Supplements May Actually Affect Aging

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Balancing our fatty acids is associated with longer telomeres -- the things that protect our chromosomes from breaking down.

fishoilmain.jpgWisconsin Department of Natural Resources/Flickr

PROBLEM: It's an eternal and irreversible certainty that as we get older, our telomeres shorten. Every time a cell divides, a bit of the chromosomal end-piece is clipped off, our DNA diminishing in length; aging, cancer, and our ultimate demise following closely behind. If we can't preserve our fleeting youth, can we at least save our telomeres? And -- let's be honest, here -- can we do so without making any major lifestyle changes?

METHODOLOGY: Researchers at Ohio State University put adults (over one hundred of them, middle-aged and older, mostly overweight but otherwise healthy) on a four month regimen of already-known-to-be-good-for-us omega-3 supplements. The pills, derived from cold-water fish like salmon and cod, were administered in two different doses, while a control group received placebos.

RESULTS: Members of both groups given the real stuff had longer telomeres than the sugar pill group -- a promising sign. But differences in telomere length reached statistical significance when looked at as a function of the lowered ratios of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 in the experimental groups' blood.

The fish pill groups also had a 15 percent reduction in oxidative stress, the disease-causing condition behind science's much-enthused over endorsement of red wine and dark chocolate.

CONCLUSION: Getting enough omega-3 fatty acid to change the balance of oils in your system may help preserve the length of your telomeres, with the potential to reduce the risk of age-related diseases.

IMPLICATIONS: Something as simple as a nutritional supplement, these results suggest, can significantly affect the aging process. These findings come on the heels of another result published from this same experiment, which associated omega-3 fatty acid supplements with lowered inflammation. Looking back at this first phase of analysis, the researchers believe that the reduced inflammation is likely responsible for the changes now observed in the subjects' telomeres.

Americans tend to have ridiculously high ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in our blood -- we eat lots of eggs, chicken, and nuts and far fewer amounts of fish (this study didn't look at the effects of omega-3 from plant sources). Unless we can convince everyone to convert to the Mediterranean diet (which, incidentally, everyone should totally consider), boosting our omega-3 intake is an easy way of reducing this ratio from its average of 15-1 to what the authors suggest would be much more beneficial ration of 4, or even 2, to 1.

The full study will be published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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