Highest omega-3 levels cut death risk by 13%, research shows

By Hank Schultz contact

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©Getty Images - batuhan toker
©Getty Images - batuhan toker

Related tags: EPA and DHA, Fish oil supplements, Krill oil, algal oil, omega-3

Want to live longer? Boost your blood levels of omega-3s, a new review of data from trials involving thousands of subjects shows.

The new research was published today in the journal Nature Communications​.  Titled Blood n-3 fatty acid levels and total and cause-specific mortality from 17 prospective studies​, the paper was written by a who’s who of more than 50 fatty acids research scientists from four continents, all grouped under the banner of The Fatty Acids and Outcomes Research Consortium (FORCE).

While the results are not exactly a map to Ponce de Leon’s legendary fountain, they are both persuasive and highly significant, said lead author Dr William S. Harris, PhD, head of the Fatty Acid Research Group, which is based in Sioux Falls, SD. Harris is also associated with the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota.

“While there is a huge amount of omega-3s research out there, there hasn’t been that much on total mortality,” ​Harris told NutraIngredients-USA.  “I think this is now one of the strongest pieces of evidence that we’ve got.”

Early research hampered by lack of baselines

Early omega-3s research was hampered by the lack of an easy way to assess baseline levels of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), the two main long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) in the bodies of test subjects.  It made it difficult to say with precision what was going on, and experts in the field believe it has contributed to some widely disseminated equivocal research results for the ingredients over the years.

About 17 years ago Dr Harris along with a collaborator invented the Omega-3 Index, a way to measure these levels in red blood cells, as well as a cheap and minimally invasive test.  The existence of this biomarker and a quick way to calculate it meant that including these measurements became more or less standard practice for omega-3s research. As a result there is now a large data set that includes these measurements from which to draw conclusions, though not all the tests included in the present study used that particular testing method.

For the paper published on April 22, 2021, the FORCE team pulled data for a pooled analysis of circulating n-3 PUFA measurements on 42,466 individuals.  The median follow up time in the 17 studies the researchers looked at was 16 years, during which time 15,720, or 37%, of the subjects had died.

The underlying studies were conducted in Australia, Canada, France, Finland, Iceland, Japan, Sweden, Taiwan, the United Kingdom and the United States. The shortest follow up time was a bit more than 5 years and the longest was a bit more than 32 years. 

Highest omega-3 levels cut death risk from all causes

The researchers divided the 42,000 plus subjects into quintiles based on their measured Omega-3 Index values.  They assessed the median values of the highest and lowest quintiles, which was roughly equivalent to individuals sitting at the 90th and 10th percentiles.

The 90th percentile equated to an Omega-3 index of 7.6% while the 10th percentile equated to 3.5%.  Other research has indicated that an Omega-3 Index of 8% or higher confers the greatest health benefits.

The researchers found that the 90th percentile group had a 13% lower risk of death from all causes than did the lowest group, which was a statistically significant finding.  In addition, they were able to parse out statistically significant risk reductions for three major causes of death.  For cardiovascular disease they say a 15% reduction, for cancer the drop was 11% and there was 13% reduction in death from all other causes combined.

As Dr Harris summarized the results: Since all of these analyses were statistically adjusted for multiple personal and medical factors (i.e., age, sex, weight, smoking, diabetes, blood pressure, etc., plus blood omega-6 fatty acid levels), we believe that these are the strongest data published to date supporting the view that over the long-term, having higher blood omega-3 levels can help maintain better overall health.”

“This comprehensive look at observational studies of circulating omega-3 fatty acids indicates that the long chain omega-3s EPA, DPA, and DHA, usually obtained from seafood, are strongly associated with all-cause mortality, while levels of the plant omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) are less so,”​ said Tom Brenna, PhD, Professor of Pediatrics, Human Nutrition, and Chemistry, Dell Medical School of the University of Texas at Austin. 

Source:Nature Communications
Blood n-3 fatty acid levels and total and cause-specific mortality from 17 prospective studies
Volume 12​, Article number: 2329 (2021)
Authors: Harris WS, et al.

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