While it certainly isn’t the whole answer, a recent study strongly suggests that fish oil supplementation may well be able to help us live longer as well as better.
It all has to do with telomeres.
Telomeres are part of the DNA molecule. The telomere is a stretch of DNA at the very end of a chromosome. The telomeres protect the chromosome ends. They keep the genetic information from getting scrambled.
Some metaphors used to describe a telomere compare it to the whipping at the end of a braided rope or the plastic end on a shoelace.
But there’s a big difference.
Each time a cell divides, the telomeres get shorter. When the telomeres get too short, the cell can no longer divide. It dies.
Because of this, telomeres have been implicated in the aging process.
At birth, most chromosomes have about 8000 telomeres. By age 65, that number is down to about 1500!
Although we by no means know the exact relationship between telomeres and aging, it is true that shorter telomeres are associated with a shorter life span.
For this reason, the results of a recent study on fish oil are very interesting.
The study in question began in 2002 and continued until early 2009. Researchers measured the length of telomeres in all participants at the beginning and end of the study.
Then they compared the rate of telomere shortening to the person’s level of omega-3 fatty acids.
There was a clear relationship between a person’s omega-3 fatty acid level and their rate of telomere shortening.
Those with the highest levels of omega-3 fats had the slowest rate of shortening, while those with the lowest levels had the most rapid rate.
While this study doesn’t absolutely prove that supplementing with omega-3 fats maintains telomere length, it certainly is suggestive.
There’s already a long list of other benefits associated with a healthy amount of omega-3 fat in your diet so I take this as simply one more reason to be sure I get adequate amounts of omega-3 fats.
My recommendation? As always, the starting point is a healthy diet. Fatty fish such as salmon are the best dietary sources.
In addition, I believe virtually everyone should supplement with marine sources of omega-3 fats. I suggest you take 1 or 2 g of fish oil twice a day with meals.
Plant sources of omega-3s have a different fatty acid profile so they don’t have all the same effects. Even so, they’re worth including in your diet.
Flax seed is the best plant omega-3 fats. However, I don’t recommend taking the oil itself. Once the oil is extracted, it easily goes rancid. Plus, you miss all the other nutritional benefits of flaxseed.
Instead, grind up whole seed fresh and take it that way (sprinkle it on cereal, use it in a smoothie, mix it with yogurt or just stirred in water and drink it as a slurry).
Two tablespoons of flaxseed per day is a good amount.
If you’re interested in reading the study I mention here, it was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association January 2010. Here’s the reference:
Association of Marine Omega-3 Fatty Acid Levels With Telomeric Aging in Patients With Coronary Heart Disease
Ramin Farzaneh-Far, MD; Jue Lin, PhD; Elissa S. Epel, PhD; William S. Harris, PhD; Elizabeth H. Blackburn, PhD; Mary A. Whooley, MD
JAMA. Jan 3 2010;303(3):250-257.