The 80 percent of Americans estimated to have low levels of omega-3 fatty acids should pay close attention to a new study that shows these nutrients can help you live longer. The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Lipidology, showed that postmenopausal women who have higher red blood cell levels of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are less likely to die from any cause.
In this prospective cohort study—a study that follows a group of similar people (a cohort) over time to observe associations between various factors and health outcomes—researchers measured the omega-3 index, an indicator of EPA and DHA levels in red blood cells, in more than 6,500 women ages 65 to 80 who participated in the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study.
The women’s omega-3 levels were determined in 1996 and then the health outcomes were tracked through August 2014 to determine if omega-3 levels could predict all-cause mortality. After a median of 14.9 years of follow-up, 28.5 percent of the women had died. The researchers controlled for a variety of lifestyle and other factors such as smoking, physical activity, and history of cardiovascular disease.
The women who had the highest blood levels of omega-3s were 20 percent less likely to die from any cause compared with those who had the lowest levels.
“This is the largest—but far from the only—study to confirm that blood levels of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids, in this case the omega-3 index, are independent predictors of risk for death,” said Dr. William Harris, lead author of the study and founder of OmegaQuant Analytics (where the samples were analyzed). “These findings support the view that higher EPA and DHA omega-3 levels are associated with better overall health.”
Although this study did not evaluate the effect of eating more fish or taking omega-3 supplements, the researchers estimated that daily intakes of approximately 1 gram of EPA and DHA are required to increase omega-3 levels from the lowest noted in this study (3.6 percent) to the highest (7.1 percent). According to the USDA Nutrient Database, this is about the equivalent of two-and-a-half to three salmon fillets per week, or 1 to 3 softgels or one teaspoon of a liquid omega-3 supplement daily.
“This study adds to a larger body of evidence demonstrating the positive correlation between higher omega-3 index levels and general wellness,” said Adam Ismail, Executive Director of the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED). “The results gathered over a 15-year period support the notion that adequate omega-3 intake is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, just like exercise and following a well-balanced diet.”
The results may serve as a wake-up call for many people, as a recent paper showed that the omega-3 levels of more than 80 percent of Americans was below the highest levels observed in this study. Another report determined that very low omega-3 levels “were observed in North America, Central and South America, Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa.”
Thirteen past studies have also investigated the effect of omega-3s on mortality. Twelve of these found statistically significant declines in mortality risk in people who had the highest levels of omega-3s.
To reach a healthy level of omega-3s, eating salmon, tuna, and sardines, which contain high levels of EPA and DHA, would require a typical person to spend up to $40 per month on these fish. Obtaining 1 gram per day of omega-3 fatty acids through dietary fish oil supplements would cost about $16 per month.
Source: Harris WS, Luo J, Pottala JV, et al. J Clin Lipidology, 2017. doi: 10.1016/j.jacl.2016.12.013