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Getting Enough Omega-3s in Your Diet May Help You Live Longer

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Key Takeaways

  • 95% of Americans have low levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Recent data shows that those who have higher levels of DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids live a longer life than those who had low levels.
  • Eating fatty fish, taking a DHA/EPA supplement, and choosing foods fortified with DHA are simple ways to increase your intake of these important fatty acids.

A new study suggests that having higher levels of certain omega-3 fatty acids could reduce your risk of early death by 13%—lowering your risk of dying from cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other causes combined.

“This study further supports the role of seafood, especially fatty fish, in our diet,” Sheri Kasper, RDN, LD, registered dietitian, and consultant for the salmon farmers of Chile, tells Verywell. “The challenge is that most Americans don’t eat enough fish, so it’s important to offer practical guidance that considers availability, affordability, and other factors that may impact consumption.”

The study was published in April in the journal Nature Communications.

What Are Omega 3 Fatty Acids?

Our bodies can produce some of the nutrients we need, but we need to obtain others through our diet—these are called essential nutrients.

Omega-3 fatty acids are an example of essential nutrients that our body can't make. Instead, we have to consume an adequate amount through what we eat and drink.

There are three key omega-3 fatty acids that each play a role in the overall health of your body:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)

Where Are Omega-3s Found?

ALA is most commonly found in plant-based foods like walnuts and chia seeds. EPA and DHA are found in marine animals like fish and algae, although they're present 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-3s?

Fatty acids perform several key roles in the body and may even protect us from disease. Research finds that DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids play a positive role in heart health, prenatal health, brain health, and eye health. While it's still a helpful addition to your diet, ALA does not offer the same benefits as DHA and EPA.  

DHA and EPA May Reduce Risk Of Early Death

Previous research finds that eating fish—a food that is rich in DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids—can help prevent early death. However, a more clear picture of the relationship between long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid blood levels and risk for all-cause mortality has been elusive.

What the Latest Research Shows

In the study published in Nature Communications in April, the researchers evaluated 17 studies that looked for associations between blood omega-3 fatty acid levels and risk for all-cause mortality.

In total, the researchers analyzed data from over 42,000 individuals. The results suggested that higher DHA and EPA levels were associated with about 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 levels of fatty acids also had a lower risk for death from cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other causes combined.

Primary study author Bill Harris, PhDs, professor at the University of South Dakota and president of the Fatty Acid Research Institute, tells Verywell that the study's results showed that “having higher (versus lower) blood (and therefore tissue) EPA and DHA levels could help you live longer and better."

The findings also indicated that DHA and EPA fatty acids contain anti-inflammatory, antihypertensive, and antiplatelet effects—all of which may contribute to the reduced risk of early death outcomes.

Limitations

There are some limitations to this research. Many studies highlighting the relationship between omega-3 fatty acids and the risk of early death are based on self-reported data, which can sometimes be unreliable. Data that is based on blood levels of fatty acids improves the reliability of the results.

“The latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans emphasized seafood because omega-3s are believed to play such an important role throughout the lifespan, starting before conception,” Kasper says. “This study only strengthens that recommendation.”

What This Means For You

Getting enough omega-3 fatty acids in your diet and ensuring that your levels are within a healthy range could help you live longer. Making small changes like including more fish in your diet or choosing DHA-fortified eggs instead of traditional eggs can help. If dietary changes are not enough to boost your levels, you might want to ask your doctor about taking a fish oil supplement.

How to Get More DHA and EPA In Your Diet

Eating more omega-3 fatty acids will support your overall health, but keep in mind that not all fatty acids offer the same benefits. Based on recent data, a minimum intake of 1,000 mg of DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids appears to be the optimum amount for most people.

If you're trying to reach optimal DHA and EPA levels, you can choose foods that contain these fatty acids or take a nutrition supplement. Some ways people can boost their DHA and EPA intake include:

  • Eating more fish and shellfish (ideally 2 to 3 servings a week)
  • Taking a DHA and EPA dietary supplement derived from fish oil, krill oil, or algal oil
  • Choosing food that is fortified with DHA, like milk, orange juice, yogurt, and eggs

Kasper notes that farmed Atlantic salmon contains more omega-3 fats than other types of salmon, and can be a good option if you're trying to increase your intake.

Harris adds that "people should measure their own omega-3 index to know if they need more omega-3s [in their diet] to achieve the longevity-target level of 8% or greater."

If people are already at adequate levels—thanks to their diet, supplements, or good genes—Harris says that "they don't need to do anything." However, if they, like 95% of Americans, are low, they should "bump up their intake."

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