According to a 2012 Ohio State University study, overweight middle-aged adults who took omega-3 supplements for several months were able to “preserve tiny segments of DNA [called telomeres] in their white blood cells.”
And since there’s some evidence indicating that telomeres and aging are closely interrelated, the Internet was briefly buzzing that taking an omega-3 supplement might help us live longer.
But does the overall body of clinical data suggest that omega-3 fatty acids can impact the aging process?
With the help of professionals, we’ll help you find some answers to this nuanced question.
First, What Does the Term ‘Aging’ Mean?
“Aging is contingent on multiple factors—mainly nutrition, stress management, and exercise,” Wanda Jeanty, MD, MS, HC, tells us.
Joao Pedro de Magalhaes, a scientist and Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Ageing and Chronic Disease at the University of Liverpool, adds that defining aging “is not so straightforward,” although he succinctly summarizes it as the “biological process of growing older.”
Which biological shifts are involved in this process? Just a couple of examples include:
- Psychological changes that can make us more vulnerable to poor decision-making
- Immunity changes that can make us more susceptible to disease
- Hearing and eyesight changes that can impact how we interact with the world
- Internal changes that can cause our tissues and organs to fail
In other words, aging isn’t a single thing. It’s a complex, multifaceted, whole-body process involving a combination of millions of little changes that add up to bigger transformations over time.
With this important caveat in mind, when asking ‘can omega-3s benefit the aging process,’ the answer largely depends on the specific condition and part of the body being referenced.
We’ll take a look at some of the strongest evidence currently available, as it relates to omega-3 supplementation and its overall effect on different aspects of the biological aging process.
The Link Between Omega-3, Inflammation, and the Aging Process
TL;DR: Inflammation is thought to play an instigating role in many diseases, which can cumulatively impact the aging process. Therefore, like a ‘trickle-down’ effect, it makes sense that if you curb inflammation, you may also reduce the likelihood of experiencing common age-related diseases.
The informative version: According to Nancy S. Jenny, Assistant Professor of Pathology at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, although there are “multiple processes [that] contribute” to biological aging, such as “redox stress, mitochondrial damage, immunosenescence, endocrinosenescence, epigenetic modifications, and age-related diseases … all are intertwined with inflammatory responses.”
In layman’s terms, there seems to be a strong correlation between inflammation and aging.
And while Arielle Levitan, M.D., author of The Vitamin Solution: Two Doctors Clear the Confusion About Vitamins and Your Health, tells us that “it’s tough to declare anything as having truly anti-aging effects,” she balances this by pointing out that omega-3s seem to have anti-inflammatory properties. Which may, she says, “in effect slow the aging process.”
“Omega-3 fatty acids prevent free radicals from forming and also reduce oxidative stress on the body,” Jeanette Kimszal, RDN, NLC adds. But “if you have a higher intake of omega-6 fatty acids, you will be more prone to inflammation."
Given this important balance, let’s take a quick detour and discuss omega-6s in the next section.
Omega-3 and Omega-6 Ratios vs. Inflammation
Lara Pizzorno, Health Advisor and author of How You Can Prevent Osteoporosis and Have Strong Bones for Life – Naturally, tells us that the standard American diet primarily consists of pro-inflammatory omega-6s, largely obtained from foods like flaxseed, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, and spinach.
In fact, some studies show Americans consume 14 to 25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids.
Among other things, Lara says this over-indulgence can inhibit our ability to convert alpha-linolenic acid (or ALA, the form of omega-3 found in most of our foods) to EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which are the forms clinically shown to provide most health benefits.
As such, she emphasizes that before purchasing a supplement, it’s “important to first determine your omega-3 needs by tracking your diet and gauging your EPA/DHA (omega 3) and AA (omega-6) intake.” From there, she concludes, “you can increase your omega-3 intake through diet or supplementation.”
» For Further Reading: Best Omega-3 Supplements Buying Guide
Jeanette Kimszal seconds this by noting, “If someone starts supplementing, they may throw off the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, so I am hesitant to suggest supplements without knowing their omega levels. In my practice, I offer blood testing that measures fatty acid levels, so we can know exactly how much you need and can supplement accordingly.” In short, be sure to talk with your doctor in advance.
With this as our foundation, let’s find out how the inflammation-reducing ability of omega-3s can impact a couple of different aspects related to biological aging.
Omega-3’s Impact on Rheumatoid Arthritis and Osteoporosis
According to Healthline, approximately 1.3 million Americans are diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) each year, which can occur and any age, although most are diagnosed between 30 and 60.
An even more prevalent concern is osteoporosis, which the International Osteoporosis Foundation reports “is estimated to affect 200 million women worldwide - approximately one-tenth of women aged 60, one-fifth of women aged 70, two-fifths of women aged 80, and two-thirds of women aged 90.”
Likely because these conditions affect such a large percentage of the population, our brief search for omega-3 arthritis and osteoporosis-related clinical studies on the National Institutes of Health’s PubMed returned more than 500 combined results.
And in their summarizations of this evidence, sites like WebMD and the Natural Medicines Database report that taking fish oil supplements, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids, could help “slow bone loss and increase bone density at the thigh bone (femur) and spine in elderly people with osteoporosis.” No dosage or frequency was noted.
They also indicate that taking fish oil, whether alone or in combination with the pain reliever naproxen (again, no dosages or other specifics provided), may help people experiencing symptoms of RA reduce their reliance on pain medications.
Eye Health and Omega-3 Supplementation
“You cannot stop the degeneration of your eyesight, but you can change certain lifestyle and diet habits to slow down the process,” says Rebecca Lee, a Registered Nurse from New York City and founder of the RemediesForMe.com natural health resource.
This includes eating “foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants,” as well as those containing high levels of omega-3s.
Sites like WebMD and the Natural Medicines Database report there’s some research that eating more fish, taking a fish oil supplement, and eating flaxseed oil could reduce the risk of getting dry eye syndrome, decrease symptoms of existing dry eye, and increase tear production.
Other research, though, they tell us, has shown no relationship between these ingredients and pain or dryness reduction in those with chronic dry eye.
Potential Omega-3 Brain Benefits
Health advisor Lara Pizzorno says that the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3s could “help protect our bodies from age-associated cognitive decline, and Alzheimer’s disease.”
Delia McCabe, a researcher at Adelaide University who holds a doctorate in Nutritional Neuroscience and is author of “Feed Your Brain - 7 Steps to a Lighter, Brighter You!,” supports this by noting the unique molecular structure of DHA and EPA “allows the brain to work optimally in a number of different ways, all of which influence aging in a positive ways—when it is present in the quantities required.”
While omega-3 fatty acids seem to play a crucial role in healthy brain function, WebMD only indicates that moderate fish consumption is ‘possibly effective’ for lowering the risk of having a stroke by as much as 27 percent. On the flip side, “very high fish consumption (more than 46 grams of fish per day) seems to increase stroke risk, perhaps even double it.”
Furthermore, if you already take aspirin for stroke prevention, the evidence doesn’t seem to indicate eating fish—and the omega-3s they contain—will deliver this same reduction.
The Bottom Line Regarding Omega-3’s Anti-Aging Benefits
To quickly recap, we’ve learned the existing clinical evidence seems to indicate a correlation between inflammation and the overall aging process. And there’s mounting evidence that consuming the right amount of omega-3 could have a beneficial impact on inflammation in general, and different aspects of eye, brain, and joint health, specifically.
But after conducting studies on whether fish oil supplementation can actually extend the lifespan of mice, Joao Pedro de Magalhaes, scientist for the Institute of Ageing and Chronic Disease at the University of Liverpool, says it has “no effect.” As such, this raises “questions [regarding omega-3’s] impact on aging, and has broad implications for the use of fish oil supplements,” he says.
The bottom line is that as consumers, we should maintain realistic expectations about the impact omega-3s can have on aging, whether ingested through food sources or supplementation. “With all the benefits that omega-3 supplements offer, we have to be careful that we don’t consider them as a panacea,” says Wanda Jeanty, MD, MS, HC.
So, if you’re considering taking an omega-3 supplement, she recommends talking with your doctor about:
- Your daily food intake; especially regarding how much fruits and vegetables you consume, compared to processed foods.
- Your stress level, and how you manage it.
- Whether or not you exercise. And if so, if this involves lifting weights.
- Any medications you’re taking that fish oil might interfere with.
Finally, she emphasizes that you’ll want to investigate the company. Specifically, do they apply good manufacturing practices? Do they have a research and development department? Does the label indicate the presence of any toxins or fillers?
» For Further Reading: Guide to Omega-3 Supplements: Uses, Health Benefits & Side Effects