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Omega-3 Fatty Acids May Prevent Cellular Aging



Your cells are constantly dying and being replaced by new cells, which are created by cell division. Telomeres are DNA sequences, and multiples of these telomeres form a protective cap on the ends of certain chromosomes. As these chromosomes are divided to create new cells, one or more of these telomeres are stripped from the ends of the chromosomes, which eventually leads to the breakdown of the chromosome and cellular death.

While it is natural and normal for cells to die, which is known as "programmed cell death," emerging research posits that the number of telomeres present on certain cells is linked to biological aging, which is different from chronological age in that these telomeres are also affected by genetic and environmental factors. These negative factors can accelerate cellular death, and premature cellular death is linked to inflammatory states such as high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer.

We know that omega-3 fatty acids are instrumental in preventing heart disease, which is at is most basic level is an inflammatory state in the body, but we don't exactly know why. Researchers at UC San Francisco, along with researchers at San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Sanford School of Medicine in South Dakota, recently teamed up to perform an interesting study on the length of those telomeres and omega-3 fatty acids (JAMA 2010;303(3):250-257).

The researchers began by recruiting 608 men who had previously had a heart attack but were considered stable. At the start of the study the researchers gathered the standard demographic information on each participant, including height, weight, age, physical activity, education, etc.. They also drew blood and tested their cholesterol levels as well as measuring the amount of fish- or shellfish-sourced omega-3 fatty acids in their blood.

Further, the researchers isolated certain types of DNA from the participants and were able to count the number of telomeres (on average) attached to the DNA of each participant. Five years later, they performed the same DNA tests, measuring how much those telomeres had shortened, and compared the results for each subject with their results from five years before and the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood.

For purposes of comparison, the researchers grouped the participants into five increasing levels of bloodstream omega-3s. Compared to those with the lowest amount of bloodstream omega-3s, those with the highest amount of omega-3s saw the least shortening of telomeres in their DNA.

What this means for you

This is pretty complex stuff but it helps point toward just why omega-3s are good for you. The authors of this study note that to really know for sure whether omega-3s are one of the factors responsible for maintaining those telomeres is to perform a long-term, placebo-controlled study. For you, just keep eating and enjoying your fish, knowing that it's delicious and great for you.

First posted: December 14, 2011