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“We found a dose-dependent decrease in the rate of telomere shortening according to the level of baseline omega-3 fatty acids, suggesting that the association is causal.” Ramin Farzaneh-Far, MD, assistant professor of medicine, UC San Francisco.

Fish Oil Slows Aging

Omega 3 Revitalizes Brain Cells in Emerging Schizophrenia 

The evidence on lifestyle and aging continues to be eye-popping. The case for exercise and healthy eating as a means of controlling how long and how well we live grows stronger with each passing day. The latest is a report suggesting that omega-3 fish oil slows telomere aging. That’s a big deal because telomeres appear to be a key to longevity. This is the first study linking diet and telomeres.

Earlier, we looked at the effect of exercise on telomere aging. Telomeres shorten as cells age. One study compared telomere length in active and inactive twins. Another study compared telomeres in middle-aged athletes with telomeres in their sedentary peers. Both studies found that people who exercise have longer telomeres; their cells look decades younger.

(For details, see: http://www.cbass.com/Strengthtrainingandtelomeres.htm and http://www.cbass.com/Exercise_FountainofYouth.htm ) 

Telomere preservation appears to explain a significant benefit of omega-3 fish oil. The new study, reported in the January 20, 2010, Journal of the American Medical Association, is the first to show that a dietary factor may be able to slow telomere shortening. (Keep in mind that omega 3 is not produced in the body; it must come from diet.)

Interestingly, this is also one the first studies to make use of the new omega-3 index recently described here: http://www.cbass.com/FishOil.htm

Cardiologist Ramin Farzaneh-Far, MD, and his colleagues measured telomeres in the white blood cells of 608 outpatients with stable coronary artery disease at baseline—and again after five years of follow-up. Blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids were also measured at the beginning of the study.

People with heart disease were chosen because we have strong evidence that fish oil significantly reduces the risk of death in people with coronary artery disease.

Patients were grouped based on the level of omega 3 in their blood. The four equal groupings ranged from a low of 2.3% to a high of 7.3%. The optimal level of omega 3 is between 7 and 8 percent, “with most people on Western diets likely having levels way below what is optimal,” Farzaneh-Far explained.

The subjects in the lowest quartile of omega 3 experienced the fastest rate of telomere shortening, while those in the top quartile had the lowest rate of shortening. “Each [standard deviation] increase in DHA+EPA levels was associated with a 32% reduction in the odds of telomere shortening,” the researchers reported.

“This suggests the existence of a novel mechanism for why omega-3 fatty acids are effective” in reducing the risk of death in patients with coronary artery disease, explained Dr. Farzaneh-Far, an assistant professor of medicine at UC San Francisco.

Farzaneh-Far also said the study is “one of the few…that has two measurements of telomere length, so we were able to measure the actual rate of change, which gives us a sense of the rate at which biological aging is taking place. From a scientific point of view, that is one of the novel elements of the study.” 

As noted above, the study is the first to show that diet “may be able to slow down telomere shortening,” Farzaneh-Far said. “We found a dose-dependent decrease in the rate of telomere shortening according to the level of baseline omega-3 fatty acids, suggesting that the association is causal.” In other words, white blood cell aging increased in proportion to the rate of decline in omega-3 level. The cells became younger as the omega-3 readings went up.

This association strongly suggests, but does not prove, a causal effect.

Clearly, telomere length is a critical marker of aging, especially in people with heart disease. “To definitively address the question of whether omega-3 fatty acids inhibit cellular aging, a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trail would be necessary,” the researchers wrote in their report. Dr. Farzaneh-Far suggested that such research be done in healthy adults, because we already have powerful evidence of the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in heart patients.

We’ll have to wait for that study, but we already have a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled trail showing the beneficial effects of omega-3 fatty acids in patients with signs of emerging mental illness. The study, conducted in Austria, is reported in the February 2010 issue of Archives of General Psychiatry.

Fish Oil Circumvents Psychosis

This study found that fish oil capsules may keep young people with early signs of mental illness from progressing into fully developed schizophrenia. If confirmed in larger studies now beginning, this would be a major breakthrough for some 2.4 million Americans who suffer from the disorder, which is often treated with antipsychotic medications. Importantly, fish oil is very safe, while antipsychotic medications have adverse effects and are controversial.

An illness affecting adolescents and young adults, schizophrenia is any one of a large group of psychotic disorders which grossly distort reality. “Schizophrenia is among the most mysterious and costliest diseases in terms of human suffering,” said G. Paul Amminger, MD, lead author of the new study. “Anything that gives some hope to avoid this is great.”

Dr. Amminger and his colleagues identified 81 people, ages 13 to 25, with warning signs of psychosis, including sleeping much more or less than usual, growing suspicious of others, believing someone is putting thoughts in their head, or believing they have magical powers. Forty-one were randomly assigned to take four fish oil capsules a day for three months. The other 40 patients took dummy pills. All subjects were then observed for an additional 40 weeks. The study was “double-blind,” which means that the patients—and the medical personnel—did not know who was taking fish oil and who was taking the placebo.

All patients received active care. Anti-depressants were allowed where indicated.  Anti-psychotic medications and mood stabilizers, however, were not permitted. The only significant difference in treatment was the fish oil capsules.

After a year on monitoring, only 2 of the 41 patients taking fish oil, about 5%, has become psychotic, or completely out of touch with reality. In the placebo group, 11 of 40 became psychotic, about 28%.

“The 12-week intervention with omega-3 significantly reduced the transition rate to psychosis and led to significant symptomatic and functional improvements during the entire [12 month] follow-up period,” the researchers wrote.

“The most striking finding of the present study is that the group differences were sustained after cessation of the intervention,” the report stated. “Only 1 patient treated with omega-3 developed psychosis during the post-treatment follow-up period.”

“In conclusion,” the report states, “the present trail strongly suggests that omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) may offer a viable prevention and treatment strategy with minimum associated risk in young people at ultra-high risk of psychosis.”

What caused the almost six-fold improvement? What was the mechanism?

No one knows what causes schizophrenia; many factors are thought to be involved, including genetic and biochemical factors.

The general hypothesis is that omega-3 PUFA enrich and protect cell membranes, including brain cells. Omega-3 makes cells work and communicate more efficiently. Therefore, it could be that patients with a high-risk for developing schizophrenia have a deficiency or don’t process fatty acids properly, leading to faulty brain cells.

Here’s what the researchers wrote:

“Based on findings of reduced long-chain omega-3 and omega-6 PUFA in individuals with schizophrenia, it has been argued that dysfunctional fatty acid metabolism could be involved in the etiology of the disorder…The therapeutic effects of omega-3 PUFAs may result from altered membrane fluidity and receptor responses following their incorporation into cell membranes.” 

That’s what happened, the researchers speculate. The omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil helped restore or stabilize the brain cells of the high-risk patients.

Sure looks like omega-3 fish oil—along with exercise and healthy balanced eating—is an important part of the formula for living long and well. 

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