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Providing perspectives on recent research into vitamins and nutritionals


Omega-3 Fatty Acids Support Healthy Aging

By Rachel Murphy

When was the last time you ate fish?  When was the last time you ate fatty fish (fish sticks don’t count) like salmon, herring or sardines?  If you had to pause to think, you are not alone.  Data from the 2011-2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey shows that the mean dietary intake of EPA and DHA found mainly in fatty fish and some fortified foods is only 86mg in adults 19 and older.  Intake is slightly higher in adults 70 and older (100mg) but still far below expert recommendations of 250 mg of EPA and DHA per day.

Two recent publications highlight the importance of EPA and DHA intake in older adults.  DHA is the main omega-3 fatty acid in the brain and an integral part of the neural membrane.  Yurko-Mauro and colleagues compiled 15 clinical trials consisting of 3315 healthy adults and 13 observational studies that tested the effect of DHA and/or EPA supplementation on memory outcomes. Their meta-analysis found a significant effect of supplementation with >1 gram/day of DHA and/or EPA on episodic memory; the memory of an event. The observational studies also supported an association between higher intake of DHA and/or EPA and memory function in older adults.    

The second study explored the relationship between omega-3 fatty acids and fracture in older adults. This is an area that has far fewer clinical studies than memory and omega-3 fatty acids, but nonetheless is promising.  Evidence suggests that chronic inflammation may contribute to bone loss and thus the anti-inflammatory activity of EPA and DHA may be beneficial for bone health.  Harris and colleagues examined measured plasma omega-3 fatty acids in 1438 men and women aged 66-96 who initially did not have any fractures and were followed for 7 years. Study participants also reported fish oil use when they were middle aged as well as current use.

The results showed that higher total n-3 fatty acids as well as EPA were associated with a 34% and 41% lower risk of fracture in men even after adjustment for risk factors. Daily fish oil use was associated with 36% lower risk of fracture in men and daily fish oil use in middle age was associated with a 25% lower risk in women. Although this was an observational study it is nonetheless an exciting finding for a health outcome of public health concern. 

We know that omega-3 fatty acids are important across the lifespan, these studies are the latest to highlight that.  So why don’t intakes reflect that?  It is time to make smart choices and follow recommendations to increase intake of fish that are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Fortified foods and omega-3 supplements can also help close the nutrient gap.  

Main Citations

Yurko-Mauro K, Alexander DD, Van Elswyk ME. Docosahexaenoic acid and memory: a systematic review and meta-analysis.  PLoS ONE 2015;10(3):e0120391. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0120391

Harris TB et al. Plasma phospholipid fatty acids and fish-oil consumption in relation to osteoporotic fracture risk in older adults: the Age, Gene/Environment Susceptibility Study.  Am J Clin Nutr  Epub Mar 18 2015, doi:10.3945/ajcn.114.087502