- The level of omega-3 fatty acids in your blood may predict mortality risk.
- Even a slight increase in your intake of omega-3s could lengthen your life.
- Previous studies have linked these fatty acids to benefits like better heart health and less chronic pain.
Having higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in your blood can increase your life expectancy by up to five years, according to a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Researchers looked at data on 2,240 people over the age of 65 who were part of a long-term study group called the Framingham Offspring Cohort. The group is comprised of the adult offspring of the original Framingham study participants, who all resided in a Massachusetts town of the same name. The Framingham Offspring Cohort study has been monitoring health markers in the offspring since 1971.
They found that four types of fatty acids, including omega-3, provided a good predictor of a longer life—in the same way that smoking offered a solid prediction of a shorter life. Even a 1 quintile increase (e.g. a jump from 0-20% range to between 20% and 40%) in these fatty acids is associated with a positive change. Omega-3s are found mostly in fatty fish like salmon, but they also come in supplement form.
“This is not an insignificant finding, because it reinforces the idea that small changes in the diet, if done in the right direction, can have a much more powerful effect than we think,” says study author Aleix Sala-Vila, Ph.D., at the Fatty Acid Research Institute and the Hospital del Mar Medical Research Institute in Spain.
He adds that the age of the participants was also important because it shows that it’s never too late to make these kinds of changes.
The Alpha of the Omegas
The benefits of omega-3s have been the subject of extensive research, and previous studies have noted that the fatty acids are potentially linked to:
- Better heart health
- Less arthritis pain and inflammation
- Reduced risk of certain cancers
- Improved cognitive functioning in people with mild Alzheimer’s disease
- Reduced risk of age-related macular degeneration
This is not the first time that changes in early mortality risk have been connected to omega-3s. A study in Nature Communications found that the presence of fatty acids could reduce the risk of early death by 13%—mainly because it reduces the chances of developing cardiovascular disease and may lower the risk presented by certain cancers.
By contrast, another fatty acid called omega-6 can also be beneficial, but only if consumed in moderation, because high levels can create inflammation.
Quenching the Fire
Your ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids should be about 1:1 or at the most, about 4:1, according to research. However, since omega-6s are found in many types of highly processed food, including fried foods, the ratio for people in the U.S. is closer to 20:1.
That can cause widespread inflammation throughout the body, according to Kim Rose-Francis, RD, a dietitian for meal delivery service, Splendid Spoon.
“Inflammation is a natural response by the body to heal itself on a short-term basis,” she says. For example, if you have an injury, that area swells with inflammation as your immune system tries to speed up repair. But when that inflammation becomes chronic, which can happen with eating too many omega-6 foods and too few omega-3 foods, it can cause the inflammatory response to worsen, says Rose-Francis.
Not all foods rich in omega-6s need to be avoided, she adds. For example, these nutrient-dense choices have the fatty acid:
- Sunflower seeds
The trick is to get the ratio right, and that can be achieved by bringing in more omega-3s, Rose-Francis says. That includes foods like:
- Fatty fish like salmon, herring, and mackerel
- Flax, hemp, and chia seeds
- Dark chocolate
For those who struggle to get enough omega-3 in their diet, supplements can help, such as cod liver oil or fish oil. There are also ALA supplements that provide a version of the fatty acid derived from plant-based sources.
“Excessive consumption of omega-6s can contribute to an ongoing inflammatory response, where you’re adding more fuel to the fire,” she notes. “Eating a diet high in omega-3s may help negate inflammation and chronic pain.”
What This Means For You
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