Giving up smoking is probably the single most important action people can take to improve their health and lengthen their life.
Now, a new study suggests that if you’re missing out on the nutrients that this seafood provides, that’s just as bad for your health and longevity as smoking! Here’s the story…
You’ve heard about the importance of omega-3 fatty acids to good health many times before, but this new research reveals brand-new insights into just how much of this nutrient your body needs for better health and a longer life.
What are Fatty Acids?
At least 300 different fatty acids have been identified and more than 20 kinds are found in foods. All fats have important roles in the body, but the two of most interest are two the body can’t make and must obtain from the food we eat.
These essential fatty acids are linoleic acid (omega-6) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3).
Since modern ultra-processed diets have an abundance of omega-6, interest has centered on the omega-3 group. Researchers are investigating whether increasing our intake of the EPA and DHA fractions of this group would be beneficial to health, especially since most Americans consume far less than the amounts recommended by health experts.
This research has led to several recent studies, some of which have focused on longevity.
Omega-3’s Consistently Lower Risk of Death
Researchers at Harvard carried out one study that involved 2,692 U.S. adults with an average age of 74 who were free from heart problems when the study began. None took omega-3 fatty acid supplements.
In the following 16 years 1,625 deaths occurred. Those in the top fifth for blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids had a 27 percent lower risk of death compared to the bottom fifth and lived an average of 2.22 years longer.
They also had a 35 percent lower risk of death from heart disease. The Harvard team published their findings in 2013.
Another large study analyzed EPA and DHA levels in red blood cell membranes – the Omega-3 Index – of 6,501 women aged 65 to 80. After 15 years, the group recorded 1,851 deaths. When researchers considered a wide variety of lifestyle factors as well as history of cardiovascular disease, they found those in the highest quarter of the index were 20 percent less likely to die from any cause than those in the lowest quarter. This team published their findings in 2017.
Then, in 2018, another research team measured the Omega-3 Index in 2,500 participants from the Offspring Cohort of the Framingham Heart Study. These are the children of the participants in the long-running study that began in 1948. All were free from heart disease at enrollment and had an average age of 68.
After a follow-up of 7.3 years in which there were 350 deaths, those in the highest fifth of the Omega-3 Index (meaning they had the highest omega-3 fatty acid levels) had a 34 percent lower risk of death from any cause and a 39 percent lower risk of heart disease.
The most recent study also used data from the Framingham Offspring Cohort and led to some surprising findings.
Lack of Omega-3’s Shortens Life to the Same Extent as Cigarettes
This study involved 2,240 participants with an average age of 65. The researchers not only looked at the Omega-3 Index but also at levels of 27 different fatty acids found in red blood cell membranes. They wanted to find out which ones, if any, could act as predictors of lifespan.
They also compared their findings with other mortality risk factors.
After eleven years, the principal and surprising finding was that a low Omega-3 Index score can shorten a person’s life by as much as smoking cigarettes regularly, while a high Omega-3 Index score does the opposite.
One of the study authors, Dr. Aleix Sala-Vila, said, “Being a regular smoker takes 4.7 years off your life expectancy, the same as you gain if you have high levels of omega-3 acids in your blood.”
A low Omega-3 Index score is less than 4.2 percent. A high Omega-3 Index score is greater than 6.8 percent.
The authors wrote in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in June, “It is interesting to note that in Japan, where the average Omega-3 Index is greater than eight percent, the expected life span is five years longer than it is in the United States, where the average Omega-3 Index is five percent. Hence, in practice, dietary choices that change the Omega-3 Index may prolong life.”
That is important news. If you’re not regularly eating fish or supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids, you should start without delay. But it’s only the beginning of the discoveries.
Saturated Fats Can be Healthy
As well as the Omega-3 Index, two lesser-known saturated fatty acids, myristic and behenic fatty acids, significantly increased life expectancy in the study. The study authors thought this “remarkable” since these two fatty acids are only present in the blood in extremely low amounts.
Myristic fatty acid is found in dairy products, coconut milk, and baked goods, and behenic fatty acid is found in canola oil, peanuts, and macadamia nuts. Eating more foods containing these fatty acids is unlikely, however, to lead to higher amounts in the red blood cell membranes, and some of these foods are questionable on other grounds.
The idea that saturated fats can be beneficial “reaffirms what we have been seeing lately,” added Dr. Sala-Vila. “Not all saturated fatty acids are necessarily bad.”
Only one of the fatty acids, palmitoleic, an omega-7 monounsaturated fat, decreased life expectancy. Palmitoleic acid percentages in the blood rise along with carbohydrate intake.
Elevated levels have been linked to obesity, type-2 diabetes, heart disease and prostate cancer.
Omega-3 Index, an Important New Risk Factor For Low Life Expectancy
The researchers also found that fatty acid levels could predict mortality to a similar extent as other standard risk factors, and they hadn’t expected this.
Lead author of the study, William Harris, who was also involved in the 2017 and 2018 studies, emphasized the importance of this finding, saying, “The information carried in the concentrations of four red blood cell fatty acids was as useful as that carried in lipid levels, blood pressure, smoking, and diabetic status with regard to predicting total mortality.
“This speaks to the power of the Omega-3 Index as a risk factor and should be considered just as important as the other established risk factors, and maybe even more so.”
You can boost your own Omega-3 Index by eating oily fish like salmon, sardines, herring, and mackerel (but avoid king mackerel which is high in mercury). The American Heart Association recommends eating two 3½ ounce servings of fish (particularly fatty fish) per week.
For many of us, supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids is an easier way to consistently maintain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23546563/ Plasma phospholipid long-chain ω-3 fatty acids and total and cause-specific mortality in older adults: a cohort study
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28391893/ Red blood cell polyunsaturated fatty acids and mortality in the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29559306/ Erythrocyte long-chain omega-3 fatty acid levels are inversely associated with mortality and with incident cardiovascular disease: The Framingham Heart Study
- https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/advance-article/doi/10.1093/ajcn/nqab195/6301120 Using an erythrocyte fatty acid fingerprint to predict risk of all-cause mortality: the Framingham Offspring Cohort