We already knew omega-3s -- those essential fatty acids necessary to maintain normal body function found in salmon and tuna-- were good for you. But a new study has found another benefit to taking omega-3 supplements: slowing down a biological process associated with aging.
Small segments of DNA located in white blood cells were preserved in those who altered their fatty acid intake by using omega-3 supplements, researchers found. Those DNA pieces are known as telomeres, which can shorten over time thanks to aging and disease. Telomere lengthening was seen in the immune system cells of study participants who "substantially improved the ratio of omega-3s to other fatty acids in their diet," according to a press release for the study.
More than 100 overweight or obese adults (average age 51) who live fairly sedentary lifestyles participated in the study. Some were given a placebo, while others took either 2.5 grams or 1.25 grams of active omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Researchers also considered the participant's intake of omega-6 fatty acids -- the type of polyunsaturated fat typically found in vegetable oils. (Americans tend to have diets rich in omega-6s but low in omega-3s.)
Of those who took one of the two dosages of omega-3 supplements, a definite lengthening in the telomeres was apparent when compared to the telomeres in the placebo group, the release stated. But when researchers took the ratio between omega-6s and omega-3s into consideration, "a lower ratio was clearly associated with lengthened telomeres."
"While the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids [in the typical American diet] averages about 15-to-1, researchers tend to agree that for maximum benefit, this ratio should be lowered to 4-to-1, or even 2-to-1," the release said. (This finding may add to the back and forth on whether or not the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s actually matter.)
Researchers said they find the connection between omega-3 supplements and telomere length exciting because "it suggests the possibility that a nutritional supplement might actually make a difference in aging," said Jan Kiecolt-Glaser, the study's lead author and professor of psychiatry and psychology at Ohio State University.
Telomeres play a vital role in the human aging process. These bits of DNA are found at the end of our chromosomes and are often likened to the ends of shoelace strings -- they keep the double helix strands of our DNA from unraveling and help our cells divide. Yet the more they divide, the shorter they get, and when telomeres get too short it can lead to cell inactivity or death. In fact people 60 and older with shorter telomeres are "three times more likely to die from heart disease and eight times more likely to die from infectious disease," according to the University of Utah's Genetics Science Learning Centers.
A past study using mice "engineered to age faster" found that lengthening the rodent's telomeres reversed the aging process, ABC News reported. After gene therapy, researchers noticed that the mice's fur went from grey back to its original dark brown and its brain size -- which had decreased by 75 percent much like the brain's of Alzheimer's patients -- returned to normal.
Flax seeds are high in lignans, especially important for women; lignans help protect the body from xenoestrogens -- toxic compounds found in plastics, hormones in meat and dairy, and pesticides, that mimic natural estrogen and can increase the risk of breast and hormonal cancers. Lignans also protect against other cancers, including colon cancer.
Cauliflower and other cruciferous vegetables like kale, cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli and arugula contain di-indolylmethane (DIM), a compound that protects against breast and hormone-related cancers.
Kale and other leafy greens are high in folic acid, a type of B vitamin that protects against cervical cancer and cervical dysplasia. Kale is also a member of the crucifer family, so it offers added protection against breast cancer.
Blueberries are rich in antioxidants that protect against Alzheimer's, which strikes one in every six women, as well as age-related changes in brain and motor function. They also have powerful anti-inflammatory actions to reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease. Blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, cherries, cranberries and prunes are other great sources of polyphenols.
Wild Alaskan Salmon
Wild Alaskan salmon is high in omega-3 fats to help prevent mood swings and depression, especially common in menopause. Salmon also has high levels of astaxanthin and zeaxantin, hard-to-get antioxidants that protect the eyes from age-related damage. Sardines are another good source of omega-3 fats.
Green tea is rich in antioxidants that protect against breast cancer and help kill existing cancer cells. It's also protective against skin cancer and may reverse the effects of sun damage, and seems to work by repairing the cell's DNA.
Olives are rich in healthy monounsaturated fats, one of the few fats that lower "bad" cholesterol and help prevent inflammation. Additionally, olives and olive oil contain antioxidant compounds that also have heart-protective, anti-inflammatory effects. Other foods high in monounsaturated fats include almonds, avocados and peanuts.
Turmeric slows and may prevent the development of rheumatoid arthritis, which seems to affect women more often and more severely. Curcumin, the active component in turmeric, also shores up the immune system to protect the body from infection.
Beans are rich in soluble fiber, to reduce cholesterol, protect the heart and possibly reduce the risk of colon cancer. Because they're high in protein, they're a good vegetarian substitute for meat -- important, because high intake of red meat may increase risk a woman's risk of colon cancer.
Tomatoes are rich in lycopene, a relatively hard-to-get antioxidant that reduces the risk of heart attack, breast cancer and cervical cancers. Some studies also suggest that cooking and oil make it easier for the body to absorb lycopene, so eat tomatoes in sauces and soups with olive oil, for maximum effectiveness.
Spinach is one of the best food sources of leutin, a carotenoid that protects the eyes from macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness as we age. Spinach is also rich in vitamin K, which is crucial in bone health and protects the health of the arteries.