The central theses
- 95% of Americans are low in omega-3 fatty acids.
- Recent data shows that those high in DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids lead longer lives than those who were low.
- Eating oily fish, taking a DHA / EPA supplement, and choosing foods fortified with DHA are easy ways to increase your intake of these important fatty acids.
A new study suggests that higher levels of certain omega-3 fatty acids could lower the risk of early death by 13% and lower the risk of dying from cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other causes together.
“This study continues to support the role of seafood, especially oily fish, in our diet,” Sheri Kasper, RDN, LD, registered nutritionist and consultant for salmon farmers in Chile, told Verywell. “The challenge is that most Americans don’t eat enough fish, so it’s important to offer practical guidance that takes into account availability, affordability, and other factors that can affect consumption.”
The study was published in the journal Nature Communications in April.
What are omega-3 fatty acids?
Our bodies can produce some of the nutrients we need, but we need to get others through our diet – these are known as essential nutrients.
Omega-3 fatty acids are an example of essential nutrients that our body cannot make. Instead, we need to consume an appropriate amount through what we eat and drink.
There are three important omega-3 fatty acids, each of which play a role in the overall health of your body:
- Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
Where are omega-3 fatty acids found?
ALA is most commonly found in plant foods like walnuts and chia seeds. EPA and DHA are found in marine animals like fish and algae, although they’re found in other foods like fortified orange juice and certain eggs.
The body is able to convert some ALA into DHA and EPA, but the process is not efficient.
Why do we need omega-3 fatty acids?
Fatty acids play a key role in the body and can even protect us from disease. Research has shown that DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids play positive roles in heart health, prenatal health, brain health, and eye health. While still a helpful addition to your diet, ALA doesn’t offer the same benefits as DHA and EPA.
DHA and EPA can reduce the risk of early death
Previous research has found that eating fish – a food rich in DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids – can help prevent early death. However, it is difficult to see a clearer picture of the relationship between long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid levels and the risk of all-cause mortality.
What the latest research shows
In the study, published in Nature Communications in April, researchers evaluated 17 studies looking for associations between blood omega-3 fatty acid levels and the risk of all-cause mortality.
In total, the researchers analyzed data from over 42,000 people. The results suggest that higher DHA and EPA levels were associated with a 15 to 18% lower risk of death when comparing the highest and lowest levels. ALA levels were not associated with a reduced risk of early death.
Compared to people with lower levels, people with higher fatty acid levels also had a lower risk of dying from cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other causes.
The author of the primary study, Bill Harris, PhDs, professor at the University of South Dakota and president of the Fatty Acid Research Institute, explains to Verywell that the study results showed that “higher (versus lower) levels of EPA and DHA in the blood (and thus in the tissue) help you live longer and better. ”
The results also showed that DHA and EPA fatty acids have anti-inflammatory, antihypertensive, and anti-platelet effects, all of which may contribute to a reduced risk of premature death.
There are some limitations to this research. Many studies highlighting the relationship between omega-3s and the risk of early death are based on self-reported data that can sometimes be unreliable. Data based on fatty acid levels in the blood improve the reliability of the results.
“The latest dietary guidelines for Americans put an emphasis on seafood because it is believed that omega-3s play such an important role throughout life, starting before conception,” says Kasper. “This study only reinforces that recommendation.”
What this means for you
If you get enough omega-3s in your diet and make sure your levels are in a healthy range, you can potentially live longer. It can be helpful to make small changes, such as: For example, adding more fish to your diet or choosing eggs fortified with DHA instead of traditional eggs. If dietary changes are not enough to increase your levels, you should ask your doctor about taking a fish oil supplement.
How to get more DHA and EPA in your diet
Eating more omega-3s will benefit your overall health. Note, however, that not all fatty acids offer the same benefits. Based on recent data, a minimum intake of 1,000 mg DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids appears to be the optimal amount for most people.
When trying to achieve optimal DHA and EPA levels, you can choose foods that contain these fatty acids or take a dietary supplement. Some ways people can increase their DHA and EPA intake are:
- Eat more fish and shellfish (ideally 2 to 3 servings per week)
- Taking a DHA and EPA dietary supplement made from fish oil, krill oil or algae oil
- Choose foods fortified with DHA like milk, orange juice, yogurt, and eggs
Kasper notes that farmed Atlantic salmon contain more omega-3 fats than other types of salmon and can be a great option if you’re trying to increase your intake.
Harris adds that “People should measure their own omega-3 index to see if they need more omega-3 fatty acids [in their diet] achieve the longevity target of 8% or more. ”
When people are already at a decent level – thanks to their diet, supplements, or good genes – Harris says “they don’t have to do anything”. However, when they are low, like 95% of Americans, “increase their intake”.