Joseph F. McCaffrey MD, FACS


Fish Oil and
the Fountain of Youth

Could fish oil really be the fountain of youth? 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 and keep the genetic information from getting scrambled. A poor metaphor is to compare a telomere to whipping at the end of the braided rope or the plastic end on a shoelace.

Each time a cell divides, the telomeres get shorter. When the telomeres get too short, the cell can no longer divide and 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 no 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 was begun in 2002 and continued until early 2009. Telomere length was measured both at the beginning and at the end of the study and all participants. The rate of telomere shortening was then compared to the person’s levels 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.

The there are multiple proven health benefits from supplementing with Marine omega-3 fatty acids, especially with regards to cardiac disease. The reason why omega-3 fats are beneficial is less clear. There are probably multiple beneficial effects working together. 

For example, omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory. They also slightly inhibit platelet pumping. They lower triglyceride levels and improve blood lipid profiles. The list goes on.

In short, omega-3 fats support vitality in many ways. The latest finding on telomere length is only the latest discovery.

My recommendation? I believe virtually everyone should supplement with marine sources of omega-3 fats. I suggest you take 1 or 2 g twice a day with meals. Personally, I take 3 or 4 g twice a day.

Plant sources of omega-3s have a different fatty acid profile and don't have all the same effects. Even so, they're worth including in your diet.

Flax seed is one of the better sources of omega-3 fats, but I don't recommend taking the oil itself. Instead, grind up the whole seed fresh and take it that way (I have it on bgreakfast cereal).

If you're interested in reading the original study, 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.

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