Does fish oil retard the ageing process?

In recent years omega-3 fats (found, for instance in ‘oily’ fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel and herring) have become famous for supposed health-giving properties, particularly with regard to cardiovascular system and brain. This week saw the publication of a study which links omega-3 fats with a slowing of the ageing process [1].

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, assessed the relationship between omega-3 levels and ‘telomeric ageing’. Telomeres are to be found at the end of the chromosomes in the body’s cells. They can be thought of as ‘caps’ at the end of chromosomes, that are believed to protect the DNA within the chromosome from damage. Basically, the bigger the telomeres are, the better, as this will help protect DNA from damage. Shortening of telomeres is generally taken as not a good sign, and is used as a marker for ageing within cells.

In the study in question, levels of the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA were measured in more than 600 individuals with known heart disease. These levels were compared to telomere length over a period of about five years. The results of this study found that higher levels of omega-3 fats was associated with a reduced risk of telomere shortening. The suggestion here is therefore that omega-3 fats can retard the ageing process.

I generally enthusiastic about the idea that foodstuffs and specific elements within the diet may have benefits for health, and this does appear to be an example of this. However, I think it’s important to bear in mind that this study is epidemiological in nature, which essentially means that while omega-3 fats are associated with slower ageing in the cells, it cannot be used to conclude that the link is causal (i.e. that omega-3 fats cause slower ageing).

However, studies of this nature are very useful for identifying areas worthy of further study. The acid test would be to perform an intervention study in which individuals are randomised to take omega-3 fats or placebo, to see what effect this has on telomere length over time.

But then again, it’s also important to remember that telomere length is a ‘surrogate marker’ for health and longevity. In general terms, it’s more useful to perform studies that look at the relationship between whatever factor we’re interested in and things like disease risk and, if we have enough data, overall risk of death (overall mortality). With this in mind, I’d like to draw attention to previous meta-analysis (in this case, an amalgamation of 14 individual studies) which found that supplementation with omega-3 fats was associated with a 23 per cent reduction (statistically significant) in risk of death [2].

References:

1. Farzaneh-Far R, et al. Association of Marine Omega-3 Fatty Acid Levels With Telomeric Aging in Patients With Coronary Heart Disease. JAMA 2010;303(3):250-257

2. Studer M, et al. Effect of different antilipidemic agents and diets on mortality. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2005;165:725-730

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11 Responses to Does fish oil retard the ageing process?

  1. Green Deane 22 January 2010 at 1:50 pm #

    I am certainly an advocate of the life style you encourage, and have been a low-carbing, paleo-eater for many years. No technofoods for this forager. But there is something of a misnomer about the benefits of eating well. The study you last reference suggests a 23% reduction in risk of death. Shall I presume these folks won’t die? I once asked a researcher conducting a review of the infamous Seven Nation Study what the participants died of since they had less heart attacks, strokes and cancer et cetera. “Oh,” he said, “they die of heart attacks, stroke and cancer, just a few years later than usual.” That’s what eating well means, dying a few years later than usual, and hopefully living well during those years.

  2. Nirmoy 22 January 2010 at 3:01 pm #

    I have just completed reading a book – Bad Science (http://www.badscience.net), by Dr Ben Goldacre in which he is scathingly critical of the supplement industry and so called nutritionists. In particular he is not impressed by the evidence that Omega 3 oils provide any real benefit. I would be very interested to know your thoughts on this

  3. Peter Silverman 22 January 2010 at 5:30 pm #

    If fish oil really does to turn out to be the fountain of youth for humans, it won’t be the fountain of youth for fish.

  4. Lucy Anne 22 January 2010 at 5:46 pm #

    John, love your blog – this is my first comment! I’d be grateful for more information re. Omega 3 & its sources (& clarity re. relevance of the proportion of Omega 3 & 6 oils), as it seems recent publicity indicates that Omega 6 from plentiful seeds, nuts, grains is not actually healthy without enough Omega 3 to balance it. Have I got this right?
    My further question is can vegetarians get adequate Omega 3 without eating any oily fish -Does bottled flax seed oil for eg provide the equivalent as implied?
    When babies and toddlers are brought up strictly vegetarian (but with dairy and eggs), what may be the risks to their development (brain or otherwise, or future health), without specific inclusion of oily fish?
    As a child in the 70′s I ate quite a lot of fish and chips, fish fingers, fish paste & sometimes sardines, but mackerel was ‘too strong’ to be popular, and salmon far too posh and expensive! So maybe I didn’t have that much Omega 3.
    Olive olive oil was unheard of except as obtainable in a tiny bottle from the chemists (to warm and put in my ear when I had a burst ear drum!)
    It occurs to me that the widespread practice (mainly amongst the working classes? -was it initiated with rations in the war years?) of administering (spoonsful of) cod liver oil to kids could have actually been very beneficial for health (not sure which Omega’s it is rich in?) & its decline more significant than we realised till now (just like the Fresh Air & Exercise in all weathers adage of parents in my youth tackled the Vitamin D deficiency issue so topical at present).
    Very grateful for any clarifications, thanks.

  5. Organic Gabe 22 January 2010 at 7:33 pm #

    Well, we all would like to live long and healthy … :)

    I just found the blog, Dr Briffa, and really like what you present here. I will be a regular reader from now on.

  6. Brian J. 22 January 2010 at 11:39 pm #

    For anyone who takes their fish oil in a capsule form I found this International Fish Oil Standards (IFOS) website useful for selecting which brands to obtain based on the purity of the fish oil. I have been taking it for over a year now and I have noticed a significant improvement in the clarity of my thinking (less foggy brain). http://www.ifosprogram.com/IFOS/default.aspx
    Cheers
    Brian

  7. Jamie 23 January 2010 at 9:33 pm #

    I can wholeheartedly vouch for the benefits of fish oils… OK – not so much from the anti-aging front (though I hope that is the case). Fish oil & vitamin D are the two supplements I’d try not to do without. I was involved with training NZ track cycling athletes for a few years, and at the time I was constantly researching everything the highly successful British Track Cycling squad were doing. At a World Cup meet, their coach let slip that their riders were all taking 20 plus fish oil capsules per day. The rationale seemed to be (for the endurance riders at least) that these sort of omega 3 intake can contribute to fuel partitioning – where fat is used preferentially over carbohydrate & fat useage can occur up to a higher percentage of maximum capacity. Other benefits stem from effects on the heart, blood vessels, red blood cells. The net effect for all athletes is that you seem to be able to ‘switch the system on’ much quicker (think being able to push your cars engine harder sooner if all the oil is in the engine rather than sitting cold in the sump). I have been taking 3-6g of EPA/DHA for several years & myself & everyone I’ve put on them all consistently report that for the same power output, heart rate is ~10-15 beats lower.

    Another effect that was quite noticeable was not only the clarity of thought, but also the faster reaction times. From riding the bike, to driving the car, etc, all senses seemed to be heightened. Along these lines, I read recently that the US Military has been doing a bit of work in this area, using omega 3 supplementation to help improve reactions, thinking, & to reduce combat stress.

  8. Anon. 24 January 2010 at 10:31 pm #

    All very well, but where is the baseline in all this?
    Fish oils are acknowledged for their counter-inflammatory properties. These arise because EPA/DHA form the basis of some important biochemical messengers that are used in regulatory functions.
    A contextual pro-inflammatory response is equally a an important feature of the bodies regulatory systems and important part of the immune response.
    There are proponents who say the modern diet supplies too much pro-inflammatory stimulus; which is way interest has developed over a heart surgeons call to ban butter. Some proponents believe oils that are major constituents of veg oil and marg are one of the major pro-inflammatory agents within a modern diet.
    The question sitting on my mind is this; is more of the counter-inflammatory oils a genuine need or does it largely go to offset too much of something else?

    I only have personal anecdote to offer. I am type 2 diabetic and would often experience muscle lethargy.
    In the last year I had cut out marg and cut back on veg oil.
    I can’t recall having felt muscle lethargy for months. I put a ring on I don’t often wear – it was noticeably loose, which I put down to reduction in swelling. A bloody mole has shrunk significantly. And finally, I finished the year 5 kilos less than I started, and without going out of my way to follow a diet plan.
    I can’t know, but I do wonder.

  9. simona 26 January 2010 at 2:37 pm #

    Hi Anon.

    I agree with those that say that seed oils provide too much polyunsaturated oil/omega 6 which is pro inflammatory and disturb the balance between omega 3 and omega 6 which should be at about 2:1.
    It’s great that you cut out margarine, I think you should cut out all ‘vegetable’ oils and especially don’t cook with them. Yes, supplementing omega 3 is about redressing the balance, but first the omega 6 need to be reduced to a really low level. There is enough in animal meat, especially chicken, then pork, even in beef, more in grain fed animals. Plenty of information in the paleo blogoshphere (wholehealthsource.blogspot.com, for example)

    rea

  10. Marek 6 February 2010 at 8:58 pm #

    Referencing Lucy Anne’s question – fish oil and flaxseed oil are both sources of omega-3 oils but are not the same. Fish oil contains the long-chain fatty acids EPA and DHA (the ‘active’ omega-3s, if you will), whilst flaxseed oil contains ALA (the ‘precursor’ omega-3). The body has to convert ALA into EPA/DHA for it to have most of the beneficial effects; this is why some people prefer to take fish oil. However, conversion does occur – at around 16% in most healthy people – but in the over 40s, those with chronic disease eg. high cholesterol, those deficient in B vits/magnesium, this is unlikely to happen. I often recommend 25-30g of flaxseed oil per day, or 6g fish oil, depending on the client.

  11. James 19 September 2010 at 6:20 pm #

    What is the best quality brand of fish oil?

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