There are many benefits to living with today’s tremendous advances in science and medicine. One of the main advantages is an increased life expectancy where many more people are able to live to a ripe old age. However, as one approaches middle age our risk of developing various diseases increases simply because we are another year older. As the saying goes: growing older is not for the feint hearted.
The wrinkled skin and grey hair may be inevitable when it comes to getting older, but it is entirely possible to age without suffering from many of the debilitating and costly conditions associated with reaching middle age.
In this article we outline some of the diseases we potentially face as we age. In addition we explore the current research regarding supplementation with omega 3 fatty acids. Could omega 3’s be the ultimate Holy Grail when it comes to anti-aging and disease prevention?
Cardiovascular diseases (CVD’s) are a group of diseases involving our most precious organs (our heart and our brain) and the blood vessels supplying them. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), CVD’s can be blamed for more than 30% of global deaths every year (1). Most of these deaths can be blamed on heart disease as well as strokes.
While many of the risk factors for developing CVD’s like smoking and an unhealthy diet can be avoided, the main risk factor for CVD’s is the aging process and this is obviously unavoidable (2). CVD’s are more common in men than it is in women however in both sexes the aging process increases the risk of developing the disease.
As we get older our bodies start to show a bit of ‘wear and tear’, our arteries become thinner with age and may become brittle due to a build up of plaque (3). The walls of our heart may thicken and our heart may even increase in size. All of these smaller changes add up to an increased risk of something going wrong like a heart attack or stroke.
Our Heart’s and Omega 3’s
The link between omega 3’s and heart health was first noted when researchers observed that native populations who consumed large amounts of fish had low rates of heart disease (4).
Since then there has been extensive research into the benefits of omega 3 consumption for not only the prevention of CVD’s but also the role omega 3’s may play in prolonging life and delaying progression of disease (5).
- Regular omega 3 consumption has been proven to lower blood pressure and reduce the formation of blood clots, both of which can be associated with the incidence of strokes (6)
- When it comes to your arteries and blood vessels throughout your body, omega 3’s help to keep them smooth and free from plaque (7)
- Omega 3’s have been shown to lower our ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol as well as raise our ‘good’ HDL cholesterol (8)
- Omega 3’s are proven to cause a major reduction in triglyceride levels in our bodies, sometimes by as much as 30% (9)
Second on the list of age related conditions is the dreaded ‘C-word’, cancer. While cancer can strike at any age, the majority of cancers are related to lifestyle and age related factors (10).
Why aging makes us more susceptible to cancer is not clear but scientists have developed a few theories. One theory is that as we age our bodies become less and less able to recognise and destroy abnormal cells, and in a nutshell our immune systems become less effective . Another theory is that cancer develops in older people simply because they have been alive longer and therefore have had a longer exposure to various carcinogens (substances capable of causing and promoting cancerous cells in the body) like sunlight, chemicals or unhealthy food (11).
Getting older is unfortunately the main risk factor for contracting many of the more commonly known cancers such as breast, lung, colon and prostate (12). According to the National Institute of Health (NIH) in the United States (U.S) our risk of developing cancer increases significantly as we reach middle age (13). As many as 25% of new cancer diagnoses are made in the age bracket of 55-64 years of age. A further 25% are diagnosed in the next decade, 65-74 years.
Cancer and Omega 3’s
Omega 3’s may be the key to preventing specific types of age related cancers like colon, breast and prostate cancer:
- Various studies have shown that omega 3’s may reduce our risk of developing colon cancer by up to 55% (14, 15)
- Women with higher intakes of specifically marine sourced omega 3’s have been found to have a reduced risk of breast cancer, in comparison to those women with a lower intake (16)
- Women undergoing treatment for breast cancer have been shown to have an increased rate of survival with omega 3 supplementation (16)
Mental Decline and Neurodegeneration
Next up on the list of age related diseases is mental decline and neurodegenerative diseases. Here we aren’t just talking about generally becoming forgetful in your old age and forgetting where your car keys are. In this case neurodegenerative diseases refers to a group of incurable conditions that affect the neurons in the brain and ultimately how the brain functions. Unfortunately when neurons become damaged or die they usually do not repair or replace themselves and over time you are left with either ataxia (problems with movement) or dementia (problems with mental functioning).
Examples of these diseases include:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- Huntington’s disease
- General dementia
- Senile dementia
Once again the main risk factor for developing any one of the different types of dementia is our age (17). Amongst the full spectrum of neurodegenerative diseases, Alzheimer’s and other dementias are the most common when it comes to age related cognitive decline. In fact one in 9 people in the age group of 65 years and older will develop Alzheimer’s and one in 3 people who are 85 years and older may already have the disease (18).
Our Brain and Omega 3’s
Excitingly, there are various studies which show that a higher intake of omega 3’s is linked to a decrease in age related mental decline and neurodegeneration.
- Higher levels of omega 3’s are linked to a lower chance of Alzheimer’s disease (19)
- Omega 3 fatty acids have shown to protect the brain against age related dementia (20)
- Populations who eat more fish have been found to have more grey matter in their brain (the type of tissue responsible for memories and processing of information) (21)
Age Related Macular Degeneration
Last on the list of age related diseases and conditions is age related macular degeneration (AMD). AMD is a fairly common eye condition found in people aged 50 years and older. It is also the leading cause of vision loss in these populations. In some people the disease progresses very slowly without major vision loss for some time, while others may experience rapid progression of the disease (22).
Unfortunately there is currently no treatment available for the early stages of AMD, however prevention and management of the condition can help with the progression of the disease.
Macular Degeneration and Omega 3’s
Docosahexaenoic acid or DHA is one of the different types of omega 3’s. Interestingly our brain and the retina of our eyes actually contain DHA. For this reason a shortage of omega 3’s can cause issues with our vision. It is therefore only logical that ongoing supplementation with omega 3’s can help to prevent AMD.
- Studies have shown that patients who had a consistent intake of omega 3’s had a protective effect against AMD, in comparison to those with a low intake of the fish oil (23)
- Eating more foods rich in omega 3 (or taking omega 3 supplements) not only prevents AMD but helps to slow the progression of the disease (24)
The Bottom Line
While it may sound like it’s all down hill from middle age, disease and ill health is not a foregone conclusion. It is never too late to start practicing preventative habits that can help to ensure that your health is maintained well into your old age. Regular consumption of Omega 3’s may not only prevent certain diseases but also improve our quality of life as we age (25).
Omega 3 fatty acids are considered essential, as our bodies cannot produce these healthy fats. It is however vital to our health to receive them from an external dietary source. The fats are readily available from our diet through various sources of ‘fatty fish’ such as mackerel, trout, salmon, sardines or herring. Here lies the problem, not everyone enjoys fish or eats enough fatty fish to be getting a sustainable and ongoing dose of omega 3’s in the correct ratios.
One of the easiest and most effective tools for prevention may be as easy as taking a pill every day. But not just any pill. It is vital to choose an omega supplement which not only provides enough of the right omega 3 fatty acids from the purest sources, but also with the correct ratio’s of DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
DHA and EPA are only available from fish and shellfish while other types of omega 3’s (alpha-linolenic acid) can be found in plant sources such as flaxseed.
Read more about the ultimate dose of omega 3’s in this article.
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