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Human study: omega-3 fatty acids delay molecular ageing

The more fish fatty acids you have in your blood, the slower your cells age, cardiologists from San Francisco General Hospital conclude in a study published in JAMA. The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA lengthen the time it takes for the telomeres in your DNA to become shorter.

Telomeres [the blue tips on the X chromosome pictured here] are located in your DNA on the tips of your chromosomes. Each time your cells divide the telomeres get shorter. When your cells have divided so often that your telomeres are reduced to nothing, your time’s up. Your tissues can no longer rejuvenate and death becomes a reality. Increasingly, researchers measure the length of the telomeres in white blood cells as a way of finding out how fast people age at molecular level.

In the JAMA study the researchers did this with 608 heart patients in their mid-sixties. The researchers determined the length of the telomeres in the subjects’ white blood cells and the concentration of EPA and DHA in their blood. Five years later the researchers measured how much shorter the patients' telomeres had become. That was when the researchers noticed that the telomere length had decreased less in the subjects with a higher concentration of omega-3 fatty acids.

The figure above shows the relative decrease in telomere length. The first quartile represents the 25 percent of the test subjects with the least omega-3 fatty acids in their blood. The fourth quartile represents the 25 percent of test subjects with the most omega-3 fatty acids in their blood.

The figure below shows that the absolute decrease is almost the same.

Omega-3 fatty acids reduce the concentration of triglycerides in the blood. They also lower blood pressure. People who eat fish regularly are usually also more highly educated, have a higher income and therefore also a more healthy lifestyle. But the researchers corrected for factors like triglycerides, blood pressure, education and income, and the relationship remained the same.

A possible mechanism is that omega-3 fatty acids build themselves into cell membranes. Here they weaken inflammatory reactions and stimulate the cell’s production of endogenous antioxidants. The researchers believe that these might be life-extending mechanisms. Another possibility is that omega-3 fatty acids activate the enzyme telomerase. This enzyme maintains telomere length for longer. Another human study has shown that men who take 3 g omega-3 fatty acids daily – and make a number of positive lifestyle changes – have greater amounts of more active telomerase. [Lancet Oncol. 2008 Nov;9(11):1048-57.]

According to test-tube studies omega-3 fatty acids work in exactly the opposite way in cancer cells. Omega-3 fatty acids inhibit telomerase in cancer cells.

The researchers also emphasise that their study was on heart patients, and not on healthy people. "The findings may not be generalizable to other patient populations, and further studies are required to validate our findings in other demographic groups", they conclude.

JAMA. 2010;303(3):250-257.

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