Most people know that Omega-3 essential fatty acids are important for maintaining cardiovascular health, but they might be surprised to learn just how important those protective benefits are.
According to new research, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in June 2021, having low Omega-3 blood concentration is just as risky as smoking.
Or, to put it the way the researshers do, low Omega-3 levels are as powerful a predictor of early death as smoking.
The findings come from an analysis of 11 years of data from the Framingham Offspring Cohort, one of the longest running studies in the world.
The study was led by researchers at the Fatty Acid Research Institute and included data from 2,240 subjects. Researchers tallied results using an Omega-3 level measuring system known as the Omega-3 Index.
The Omega-3 Index measures the level of two long-chain Omega-3 fatty acid—EPA and DHA—in red blood cell membranes expressed as a percent of total fatty acids.
An Omega-3 Index in the range of 8-12% is one indicator of better overall health. As a part of an overall healthy lifestyle, an Omega-3 Index of 8% or higher may help to maintain heart, brain, eye and joint health. An intermediate Omega-3 Index is between 4% and 8%, and a low Omega-3 Index is 4% and below. Most Americans have an Omega-3 Index below 4%.
To better understand how this measuring correlates to life expectancy, researchers can compare to a country—like Japan—where the Omega-3 index is much higher due to a diet that is high in Omega-3 foods such like fish, seaweed and algae.
“It is interesting to note that in Japan, where the mean Omega-3 Index is greater than 8%, the expected life span is around five years longer than it is in the United States, where the mean Omega-3 Index is about 5%. Hence, in practice, dietary choices that change the Omega-3 Index may prolong life,” said Michael McBurney, PhD, FCNS-SCN, lead researcher in this study.
Low Omega-3 same risk as smoking
“In the final combined model, smoking and the Omega-3 Index seem to be the most easily modified risk factors. Being a current smoker [at age 65] is predicted to subtract more than four years of life [compared with not smoking], a life-shortening equivalent to having a low vs. a high Omega-3 index,” added McBurney.
In the study, which had a follow-up period of 7.3 years in participants between the ages of 66 and 73, the baseline Omega-3 index was significantly and inversely associated with all-cause mortality.
The individuals who had the highest Omega-3 index were 33% less likely to die during the follow-up years compared with those who had the lowest Omega-3 index.
These results of the study are similar to those found in previous landmark studies: the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study; the Heart and Soul Study; and the Ludwigshafen Risk and Cardiovascular Health Study.
Despite the importance of Omega-3s relative to cardiovascular health, it’s a nutrient that doesn’t usually make it on the radar of public health agencies—so consumer awareness remains low. It is not required to be listed on food labels.
The human body does not make Omega-3s, so it must be acquired via the diet. Foods that are high in Omega-3s include mackeral, salmon, herring, sardines and caviar. Vegetarian foods high in Omega-3s include flax seed, chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seed, seaweed and algae.
Though the current study focused on EPA and DHA Omega-3s, there are actually three types of Omega-3s:
• A-linolenic acid (ALA)
• Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
• Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
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