The Healthy Librarian

The Healthy Librarian

Posted January 24, 2010

Published in Health

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A New Role for Omega-3? Lengthening Our Telomeres--A Key Marker for Aging, Longer Life, and Health. From JAMA & UCSF.

Read More: aging, Dr. Ramin Farzaneh-Far, healthy fats, heart disease prevention, longevity, Omega-3's, omega-6s, Susan Allport, telomeres

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"The main result of our study is that patients with high levels of Omega-3 fish oil in the blood appear to have a slowing of the biological aging process over five years as measured by the change in telomere length. It's also the first study that shows that a dietary factor may be able to slow down telomere shortening.  

-Ramin Farzaneh-Far, M.D., of the University of California at San Francisco, lead author of "Association of Marine Omega-3 Fatty Acid Levels with Telomeric Aging in Patients with Coronary Heart DiseaseJAMA 2010;303(3):250-257.

This week's big medical news story appeared in JAMA and it is one more reason why you want to be sure to get your Omega-3s everyday--while lowering your intake of the Omega-6s.

We already knew that the Omega-3s were amazing.

  • They're anti-inflammatory and anti-clotting
  • They prevent age-related cognitive decline
  • They lower triglycerides
  • They lower blood pressure
  • They slow age-related macular degeneration
  • They keep blood vessels flexible
  • They lower depression
  • They decrease joint stiffness in rheumatoid and osteo-arthritis
  • They're necessary for fetal and infant brain development

So What Did The JAMA Heart And Soul Study Tell Us That We Didn't Already Know?

The UCSF researchers followed 608 outpatients with stable coronary artery disease for 5-8 years.  At the start of the study they measured everyone's levels of Omega-3's and the length of their leukocyte telomeres--which is a marker of aging.  Remember though--this was an observational study, not a gold-standard double-blind randomized controlled study.

Here's how the lead researcher Dr. Ramin Farzaneh-Far explains the results:

"The main result from our study is that patients with high levels of Omega-3's fish oil in the blood appear to have a slowing of the biological aging process over five years as measured by the change in telomere length."

"Patients with the highest levels of Omega-3 fish oils were found to display the slowest decrease in telomere length, whereas those with the lowest levels of Omega-3 fish oils in the blood had the fastest rate of telomere shortening, suggesting that these patients were aging faster than those with the higher fish oil levels in their blood."

"By measuring telomere length at two different times we are able to see the speed at which the telomeres are shortening and that gives us some indication of how rapidly the biological aging process is taking place in these patients."

What Are Telomeres And How Exactly Do They Affect The Aging Process?


PLASTIC TIPS ON SHOELACES--that's the analogy often used to describe telomeres. They are the red caps sitting on the ends of these blue chromosomes. 

Just like plastic shoelace tips that keep the laces from fraying--the telomeres protect valuable genetic material needed for our cells to divide properly, and to repair worn-out cells.

They are also strong markers for aging (see the graph below and get depressed).  Not only do they shorten as we age, over time the telomeres can become damaged and shorten because of inflammation, smoking, obesity, or lack of exercise. 

Emmuanel Skorkalakes, of the Wistar Institue in Philadelphia, explains,

"When the telomeres become short, then you start cutting into actual chromosomes where there are genes essential for our body. To prevent the fraying DNA in all those aging cells from seeding maliganant tumors, the body turns them dormant. Your body shuts down more and more cells every day and you become old."


This week's JAMA study is just one more bit of evidence that shows how our lifestyle choices can affect telomere length--and promote healthy aging.

  • A 2008 twin study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine compared the telomere length of exercising twins versus couch-potato twins.  After only 12 months, the telomere's of the exercising  showed the equivalent of being 10 years younger than their couch-potato siblings.  Click here to read about the study.
  • A 2008 study led by Dr. Dean Ornish followed a group of men with early prostate cancer who made these lifestyle changes:  increased their fruit & vegetable consumption; limited their fat consumption to 10%; lowered their consumption of refined sugar; took vitamin supplements & fish oil; exercised for 30 minutes a day; and either meditated or did yoga for stress relief.  After only 3 months, 24 out of 30 men showed significant increases in their telomerase levels.  Click here to read about the study.
  • A number of studies have also shown how stress can accelerate telomere shrinking, especially in caregivers of chronically ill children and the spouses of Alzheimer's patients.  One study even suggested that you can accelerate your biological age by as much as 17 years if you're exposed to what you perceive as high psychological stress!

All About Omega-3's.  Does It Really Have To Be Fish Oil?

Yes, the JAMA study used Omega-3 fish oil, but Omega-3s really originate in green leafy plants--not in fish.

Susan Allport is a medical researcher who is an expert in "all things Omega-3".  She has written a brilliant article in the September 2009 issue of Prevention, "The Vanishing Youth Nutrient" that does an excellent job of explaining why we need Omega-3s in our diet, why so many physicians equate Omega-3 with fish, and why Omega-3 is sorely lacking in our diets.  Click here for the article.

  • We can only obtain the Omega-3s through our diet. 
  • They are essential to the healthy development of our brains--and they are found in the highest concentrations in our most active tissues: brains, eyes, hearts, the tails of sperm.
  • The metabolism of every species on the planet is a function of the amount of Omega-3s in its tissues, according the Dr. Tony Hulbert of the University of Wollongong in Australia.  Think: Omega-3=growth, activity, energy.  Omega-6=hibernation, fat storage, belly fat.  Athletes take note:  high concentrations of omega-3s in muscle cells lead to improved athletic performance.
  • Research from the 1980s showed fish-eating populations of Greenland and Japan had the lowest rates of heart disease.  That's why the Omega-3s became associated with fish--instead of with green plants.  And that's why the American Heart Association recommends fish or fish oil as our main source of Omega-3s.  Big Problem:  Fish are not a sustainable source of Omega-3s--there are simply not enough fish in the world's oceans.
  • Big Point:  "Omega-3s are found in the green leaves of plants.  Fish are full of omega-3s because they eat phytoplankton (the microscopic green plants of the ocean) and seaweed.  They are what turn sunlight into sugars, the basis of life on Earth."
  • You can get all your Omega-3s from green leafy vegetables, legumes, flax seeds, chia seeds (they have the highest level of any plant-click here to read more), or walnuts, highly purified fish oil supplements, or algae-sourced Omega-3 supplements.
  • Big Point:  If you cut back on vegetable oils, processed foods, trans-fats, corn-fed meat, chicken and milk you will actually lower the amount of Omega-3s you need in your diet to balance the negative effects of the inflammatory, fat-promoting Omega-6s we are getting in our Western Diet.
  • The ratio of Omega 6's to 3's should be 2:1, or ideally 1:1.  Currently, for most Americans, the ratio is 17:1 in favor of heart-disease-causing Omega 6's.

Why Is Our Diet So High in Omega-6s, And So Low In Healthy Omega 3's?

  • Omega-6 fats come from the seeds of plants.  We need them--but we need far less of them than we are consuming--and we need them in just the right ratio to Omega-3s.  They promote blood clotting, inflammation, and cause us to "pack on the pounds".  Just like corn-fed beef.  Grass-fed or plant-fed animals and humans are naturally lower in fat!
  • Big Point:  Omega-6s and Omega-3s are in constant competition to enter our cells.  Eat too many Omega-6s in the form of meat, oil, or processed food--and you'll be seriously deficient in Omega-3s.  Eat less Omega-6s, and your body won't need as many Omega-3s to function properly.
  • Omega-3s began to disappear from our food supply when previously grass-fed animals began eating corn and soybeans, which are high in Omega-6s.  The factory-farm and feedlots replaced the family farm, and grass-fed meat, milk, and eggs became history.  Click here to read about King Corn's effect on our health.
  • With farm subsidies for corn and soybeans, companies like Archer Daniels Midland figured out how to extract oil from these and other seed plants--giving us even more Omega-6s in our diet.
  • The AHA and other health agencies encouraged us to use oil and margarine because they assumed these cholesterol-free oils were good for the heart.  Wrong!
  • "Food chemists discovered that rancidity in packaged food was caused by the oxidation of some minor but pesky  fats: the Omega-3s."  So they removed them and extended the shelf-life of packaged food.
  • Fewer and fewer of us are eating enough green leafy vegetables, fish, or flax to even put a dent into the "out-of-whack" Omega-6 to Omega 3 ratio.

I highly recommend you read Susan Allport's article in Prevention, as well as her book, The Queen of Fats.  She does an excellent job of explaining the good, the bad, and the ugly of the fat world.

If you need any more convincing on the wonders of Omega-3, watch Allport's brief video, The Rat Race, comparing rats fed on diets rich in Omega-3s with those fed on diets deficient in Omega-3s.

Click here if you aren't seeing the video.