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Omega-3 fats—the type found in deep, cold water fish such as salmon and sardines—appear to improve health and survival in people with heart disease. These healthy fats also seem to ward off heart disease in the first place. Though health experts are less sure of how and why omega-3s protect the ticker, one study provides clues to this mystery.
To better understand the omega-3-healthy-heart connection, researchers studied telomere (teal-oh-meer) length. Telomeres cap the ends of DNA, the cells’ “instruction manual.” They are similar to the plastic tips on shoelaces that prevent them from unraveling.
Telomere length is a good marker of cellular age, because as cells age, telomeres get shorter. The shorter a cell’s telomeres, the older that cell is. Eventually telomeres get too short to protect DNA from damage. The cell goes into a quiet phase or dies and is replaced by other cells when this happens.
For the study, white blood cell telomere length of 608 people with stable heart disease was measured at the beginning of the study (baseline) and five years later. Baseline omega-3 blood levels were measured as well.
People with the highest omega-3 fat levels at baseline had the slowest rate of telomere shortening over the five years. The telomeres from people with low levels of omega-3 fats became shorter much more quickly.
The study suggests that omega-3 fats may protect cells from aging. This may be one reason why omega-3s lead to better heart health, both before and after heart disease sets in.
We don’t know if higher omega-3s in the body and longer telomere length cause better heart health. They may be an effect of being healthier to begin with. Despite this, there are few downsides to getting more omega-3s. These healthy fats also may lower risk of cancer and other chronic diseases.
To optimize your omega-3 intake:
(JAMA 2010;303:250–57; Food Research International;39:910–6)