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Omega-3s May Slow Aging in Heart Patients

Heart Disease Patients With High Omega-3 Fatty Acids Age More Slowly on Cellular Level
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

omega_3_helps_aging.jpg

Jan. 19, 2010 -- Heart disease patients with the highest blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids appear to age more slowly than those with the lowest blood levels, according to a new study.

Previous studies have shown that heart disease patients with a high intake of omega-3 fatty acids -- found in fish and in dietary supplements -- have higher survival rates.

The new study may help explain why. ''We've shown an entirely new effect of omega-3 fatty acids, which may be to slow down the biological aging process in patients with coronary heart disease," says lead author Ramin Farzaneh-Far, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco.

Farzaneh-Far and his colleagues looked at a marker of biological age -- the rate of shortening of telomeres, structures at the end of a chromosome involved in its replication and stability. As the telomeres shorten over time, the eventual result is cell death, scientists believe.

In previous research, Farzaneh-Far says, his team looked at the same group of heart disease patients and found that telomere length was ''a powerful predictor of death and bad outcomes [from heart disease]. In that [study], we found the shorter your telomeres, the greater your risk of death."

In the new study, the higher the blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the patients evaluated, the slower the rate of telomere shortening.

"We looked at the biological effects of higher blood levels," Farzaneh-Far tells WebMD, "not supplement intake."

The study is published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Omega-3s and Aging Study Details

For the study, the researchers evaluated 608 patients with stable heart disease, recruited from the Heart and Soul Study from September 2000 and December 2002, following them up for a median of six years (half were followed more, half less).

Participants gave blood samples at the beginning of the study, which were evaluated for omega-3 fatty acid levels. The researchers also isolated DNA from the blood and evaluated the length of the telomere of the leukocyte, a type of blood cell.

Over the follow-up period, "patients with the lowest blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids exhibited a rate of telomere shortening 2.6 times faster than patients with the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids," Farzaneh-Far tells WebMD.

How does that relate to aging? "We don’t have enough data to be able to convert the changes of telomere shortening into years of aging," he says. "This may be one of the first studies to look at the change in telomere length over time."

There was no association found between omega-3 fatty acid levels and telomere length at the study start. The researchers aren't sure why, but state that omega-3 fatty acid levels is one of many influences on the length of the telomeres, with other factors including inflammation in the body, obesity, oxidative stress, and lack of physical activity.

Would high omega-3 blood levels help those without heart disease? Farzaneh-Far can't say. ''Whether this effect of omega-3 fatty acids on telomere length is present in those without coronary heart disease, I just can't say," Farzaneh-Far says, noting it was beyond the scope of the study. However, he adds, ''it could be.'' Telomere shortening occurs in everyone, he says.

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