Do Omega-3s Add Years To Your Life?

Why Are Omega-3s So Controversial? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

ArgumentI don’t need to tell you that omega-3s are controversial. Some experts confidently tell you that omega-3s significantly reduce your risk of heart disease and may reduce your risk of cancer and other diseases. Other experts confidently tell you that omega-3s have no effect on heart disease or any other disease. They claim that omega-3 supplements are no better than “snake oil”.

The problem is that each camp of experts can cite published clinical studies to support their claims. How can that be? How can clinical studies come to opposite conclusions on such an important topic? The problem is that it is really difficult to do high quality clinical studies on omega-3s. I will discuss that in the next section.

The question of whether omega-3s affect life span has also been controversial. Heart disease and cancer are the top two causes of death in this country. So, if omega-3s actually reduced the risk of heart disease and cancer, you might expect that they would also help us live longer. Once again, there are studies on both sides of this issue, but they are poor quality studies.

We need more high-quality studies to clear up the controversies surrounding the health benefits of omega-3s. I will report on one such study in this issue of “Health Tips From The Professor”. But first let me go into more depth about why it is so difficult to do high-quality studies with omega-3 fatty acids.

Clinical Studies 101: Why Are Omega-3s So Controversial?

professor owlI have covered this topic in previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor”, but here is a quick summary.

  1. Randomized, placebo controlled clinical trials (RCTs) are considered the gold standard for evidence-based medicine, but they ill-suited to measure the effect of omega-3s on health outcomes.
    • Heart disease and cancer take decades to develop. Most RCTs are too small and too short to show a meaningful effect of omega-3s on these diseases.
    • To make up for this shortcoming, some recent RCTs have started with older, sicker patients. This way enough patients die during the study that it can measure statistically significant outcomes. However, these patients are already on multiple medications that mimic many of the beneficial effects of omega-3s on heart disease.

These studies are no longer asking whether omega-3s reduce the risk of heart disease. They are really asking if omega-3s have any additional benefits for patients who are already taking multiple medications – with all their side effects. I don’t know about you, but that is not the question I am interested in.

    • Until recently, most RCTs did not measure circulating omega-3 levels before and after supplementation, so the investigators had no idea whether omega-3 supplementation increased circulating omega-3 levels by a significant amount.

And for the few studies where omega-3 levels were measured before and after supplementation, it turns out that for many of the participants, their baseline omega-3 levels were too high for omega-3 supplementation to have a meaningful effect. Only participants with low omega-3 levels at the beginning of the study benefited from omega-3 supplementation.Supplementation Perspective

These studies are often quoted as showing omega-3 supplementation doesn’t work. However, they are actually showing the true value of supplementation. Omega-3 supplementation isn’t for everyone. It is for people with poor diet, increased need, genetic predisposition, and/or pre-existing disease not already treated with multiple medications.

2) Prospective cohort studies eliminate many of the shortcomings of RCTs. They can start with a large group of individuals (a cohort) and follow them for many years to see how many of them die or develop a disease during that time (this is the prospective part of a prospective cohort trial). This means they can start with a healthy population that is not on medications.

This also means that these studies can answer the question on most people’s minds, “Are omega-3s associated with reduced risk of dying or developing heart disease?” However, these studies have two limitations.

    • They are association studies. They cannot measure cause and effect.
    • Ideally, omega-3 levels would be measured at the beginning of the study and at several intervals during the study to see if the participant’s diet had changed during the study. Unfortunately, most prospective cohort studies only measure omega-3 levels at the beginning of the study.

3) Finally, a meta-analysis combines data from multiple clinical studies.

    • The strength of a meta-analysis is that the number of participants is quite large. This increases the statistical power and allows it to accurately assess small effects.
    • The greatest weakness of meta-analyses is that the design of the individual studies included in the meta-analysis is often quite different. This introduces variations that decrease the reliability of the meta-analysis. It becomes a situation of “Garbage in. Garbage out”

The study (WS Harris et al, Nature Communications, Volume 12, Article number: 2329, 2021) I am discussing today is a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. It was designed to determine the association between blood omega-3 fatty acids and the risk of:

  • Death from all causes.
  • Death from heart disease.
  • Death from cancer.
  • Death from causes other than heart disease or cancer.

More importantly, it eliminated the major weakness of previous meta-analyses by only including studies with a similar design.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study was a meta-analysis of 17 prospective cohort studies with a total of 42,466 individuals looking at the association between omega-3 fatty acid levels in the blood and premature death due to all causes, heart disease, cancer, and causes other than heart disease and cancer.

Participants in the 17 studies were followed for an average of 16 years, during which time 15,720 deaths occurred. This was a large enough number of deaths so that a very precise statistical analysis of the data could be performed.

The average age of participants at entry into the studies was 65, and 55% of the participants were women. Whites constituted 87% of the participants, so the results may not be applicable to other ethnic groups. None of the participants had heart disease or cancer when they entered the study.

Finally, the associations were corrected for a long list of variables that could have influenced the outcome (Read the publication for more details).

A strength of this meta-analysis is that all 17 studies were conducted as part of the FORCE (Fatty Acids & Outcomes Research Consortium) collaboration. The FORCE collaboration was established with the goal of understanding the relationships between fatty acids (as measured by blood levels of the omega-3 fatty acids) on premature death and chronic disease outcomes (cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other conditions).

Each study was designed using a standardized protocol, so that the data could be easily pooled for a meta-analysis. In the words of the FORCE collaboration founders:

  1. The larger sample sizes of [meta-analyses] will substantially increase statistical power to investigate associations…enabling the [meta-analyses] to discover important relationships not discernible in any individual study.

2) Standardization of variable definitions and modeling of associations will reduce variation and potential bias in estimates across cohorts.

3) Results will be far less susceptible to publication bias.

Do Omega-3s Add Years To Your Life?

Omega-3sThe meta-analysis divided participants into quintiles based on blood omega-3 levels. When comparing participants with the highest omega-3 levels with participants with the lowest omega-3 levels:

  • Premature death from all causes was decreased by 16%.
    • When looking at the effect of individual omega-3s, EPA > EPA+DHA > DHA.
  • Premature death from heart disease was decreased by 19%.
    • When looking at the effect of individual omega-3s, DHA > EPA+DHA > EPA.
  • Premature death from cancer was decreased by 15%.
    • When looking at the effect of individual omega-3s, EPA > DHA > EPA+DHA.
  • Premature death from causes other than heart disease and cancer was decreased by 18%.
    • When looking at the effect of individual omega-3s, EPA > EPA+DHA > DHA.
  • The differences between the effects of EPA, DHA, and EPA+DHA were small.
  • ALA, a short chain omega-3 found in plant foods, had no effect on any of these parameters.

In the words of the authors: “These findings suggest that higher circulating levels of long chain omega-3 fatty acids are associated with a lower risk of premature death. Similar relationships were seen for death from heart disease, cancer, and causes other than heart disease and cancer. No associations were seen with the short chain omega-3, ALA [which is found in plant foods]”.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

confusionIf you are thinking that 15-19% decreases in premature death from various causes don’t sound like much, let me do some simple calculations for you. The average lifespan in this country is 78 years.

  • A 16% decrease in death from all causes amounts to an extra 12.5 years. What would you do with an extra 12.5 years?
  • A 19% decrease in death from heart disease might not only allow you to live longer, but it has the potential to improve your quality of life by living an extra 15 years free of heart disease.
  • Similarly, a 15% decrease in death from cancer might help you live an extra 12 years cancer-free.
  • In other words, you may live longer, and you may also live healthier longer, sometimes referred to as “healthspan”.

Don’t misunderstand me. Omega-3s are not a magic wand. They aren’t the fictional “Fountain of Youth”.

  • There are many other factors that go into a healthy lifestyle. If you sit on your couch all day eating Big Macs and drinking beer, you may be adding the +12.5 years to a baseline of -30 years.
  • Clinical studies report average values and none of us are average. Omega-3s will help some people more than others.

I will understand if you are skeptical. It seems like every time one study comes along and tells you that omega-3s are beneficial, another study comes along and tells you they are worthless.

This was an extraordinarily well-designed study, but it is unlikely to be the final word in the omega-3 controversy. There are too many poor-quality studies published each year. Until everyone in the field agrees to some common standards like those in the FORCE collaboration, the omega-3 controversy will continue.

The Bottom Line 

A recent meta-analysis looked at the association between omega-3 fatty acid levels in the blood and premature death due to all causes, heart disease, cancer, and causes other than heart disease and cancer.

The meta-analysis divided participants into quintiles based on blood omega-3 levels. When comparing participants with the highest omega-3 levels with participants with the lowest omega-3 levels:

  • Premature death from all causes was decreased by 16%.
  • Premature death from heart disease was decreased by 19%.
  • Premature death from cancer was decreased by 15%.
  • Premature death from causes other than heart disease and cancer was decreased by 18%.

In the words of the authors: “These findings suggest that higher circulating levels of long chain omega-3 fatty acids are associated with a lower risk of premature death. Similar relationships were seen for death from heart disease, cancer, and causes other than heart disease and cancer.”

For more details about study and what this study means for you read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

 

 

Can You Improve Your Healthspan?

Can You Live Healthier, Longer?

Ever since Ponce de Leon led an expedition to the Florida coast in 1513, we have been searching for the mythical “Fountain Of Youth”. What does that myth mean?

Supposedly, just by immersing yourself in that fountain you would be made younger. You would experience all the exuberance and health you enjoyed when you were young. There have been many snake oil remedies over the years that have promised that. They were all frauds.

But what if you had it in your power to live longer and to retain your youthful health for most of those extra years. The ability to live healthier longer is something that scientists call “healthspan”. But you can think of it as your personal “Fountain Of Youth”.

Where are we as a nation? Americans ranked 53rd in the world for life expectancy. We have the life expectancy of a third-world country. We are in sore need of a “Fountain Of Youth”.

That is why I decided to share two recent studies from the prestigious Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health with you today.

How Were The Studies Done?

Clinical StudyThese studies started by combining the data from two major clinical trials:

  • The Nurse’s Health Study, which ran from 1980 to 2014.
  • The Health Professional’s Follow-Up Study, which ran from 1986-2014.

These two clinical trials enrolled 78,865 women and 42,354 men and followed them for an average of 34 years. During this time there were 42,167 deaths. All the participants were free of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer at the time they were enrolled. Furthermore, the design of these clinical trials was extraordinary.

  • A detailed food frequency questionnaire was administered every 2-4 years. This allowed the investigators to calculate cumulative averages of all dietary variables.
  • Participants also filled out questionnaires that captured information on disease diagnosis every 2 years with follow-up rates >90%. This allowed the investigators to measure the onset of disease for each participant during the study. More importantly, 34 years is long enough to measure the onset of diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer – diseases that require decades to develop.
  • The questionnaires also captured information on medicines taken and lifestyle characteristics such as body weight, exercise, smoking and alcohol use.
  • For analysis of diet quality, the investigators use something called the “Alternative Healthy Eating Index”. [The original Healthy Eating Index was developed about 10 years ago based on the 2010 “Dietary Guidelines for Americans”. Those guidelines have since been updated, and the “Alternative Healthy Eating Index” is based on the updated guidelines.] You can calculate your own Alternative Healthy Eating Index below, so you can see what is involved.
  • Finally, the investigators included five lifestyle-related factors – diet, smoking, physical activity, alcohol consumption, and BMI (a measure of obesity) – in their estimation of a healthy lifestyle. Based on the best available evidence, they defined “low-risk” in each of these categories. Study participants were assigned 1 point for each low-risk category they achieved. Simply put, if they were low risk in all 5 categories, they received a score of 5. If they were low risk in none of the categories, they received a score of 0.
  • Low risk for each of these categories was defined as follows:
    • Low risk for a healthy diet was defined as those who scored in the top 40% in the Alternative Healthy Eating Index.
    • Low risk for smoking was defined as never smoking.
    • Low risk for physical activity was defined as 30 minutes/day of moderate or vigorous activities.
    • Low risk for alcohol was defined as 0.5-1 drinks/day for women and 0.5-2 drinks/day for men.
    • Low risk for weight was defined as a BMI in the healthy range (18.5-24.9 kg/m2).

Can You Live Healthier Longer?

Older Couple Running Along BeachThe investigators compared participants who scored as low risk in all 5 categories with participants who scored as low risk in 0 categories (which would be typical for many Americans). For the purpose of simplicity, I will refer to people who scored as low risk in 5 categories as having a “healthy lifestyle” and those who scored as low risk in 0 categories as having an “unhealthy lifestyle”.

The results of the first study were:

  • Women who had had a healthy lifestyle lived 14 years longer than women with an unhealthy lifestyle (estimated life expectancy of 93 versus 79).
  • Men who had a healthy lifestyle lived 12 years longer than men with an unhealthy lifestyle (estimated life expectancy was 87 versus 75).
  • It was not necessary to achieve a perfect lifestyle. Life expectancy increased in a linear fashion for each low-risk lifestyle behavior achieved.

The authors of the study concluded: “Adopting a healthy lifestyle could substantially reduce premature mortality and prolong life expectancy in US adults. Our findings suggest that the gap in life expectancy between the US and other developed countries could be narrowed by improving lifestyle factors.”

The results of the second study were:

  • Women who had a healthy lifestyle lived 11 years longer free of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than women who had an unhealthy lifestyle (estimated disease-free life expectancy of 85 years versus 74 years).
  • Men who had a healthy lifestyle lived 8 years longer free of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than men who had an unhealthy lifestyle (estimated disease-free life expectancy of 81 years versus 73 years).
  • Again, disease-free life expectancy increased in a linear fashion for each low-risk lifestyle behavior achieved.

The authors concluded: “Adherence to a healthy lifestyle at mid-life [They started their analysis at age 50] is associated with a longer life expectancy free of major chronic diseases. Our findings suggest that promotion of a healthy lifestyle would help reduce healthcare burdens through lowering the risk of developing multiple chronic diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, and extending disease-free life expectancy.”

Can You Improve Your Healthspan?

Questioning ManI posed the question at the beginning of this article, “Can you improve your healthspan?” These two studies showed that you can improve both your life expectancy and your disease-free life expectancy. So, the answer to the original question appears to be, “Yes, you can improve your healthspan. You can create your personal “Fountain of Youth.”

However, as a nation we appear to be moving in the wrong direction. The percentage of US adults adhering to a healthy lifestyle has decreased from 15% in 1988-1992 to 8% in 2001-2006.

The clinical trials that these studies drew their data from were very well designed, so these are strong studies. However, like all scientific studies, they have some weaknesses, namely:

  • They looked at the association of a healthy lifestyle with life expectancy and disease-free life expectancy. Like all association studies, they cannot prove cause and effect.
  • The clinical trials they drew their data with included mostly Caucasian health professionals. The results may differ with different ethnic groups.
  • These studies did not look at the effect of a healthy lifestyle on the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. However, other studies have shown that people who were low risk for each of the 5 lifestyle factors (diet, exercise, body weight, smoking, and alcohol use) individually have a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s and/or dementia.

Finally, I know you have some questions, and I have answers.

Question: What about supplementation? Will it also improve my healthspan?

Answer: When the investigators analyzed the data, they found that those with the healthiest lifestyles were also more likely to be taking a multivitamin. So, they attempted to statistically eliminate any effect of supplement use on the outcomes. That means these studies cannot answer that question.

However, if you calculate your Alternate Healthy Eating Index below, you will see that most of us fall short of perfection. Supplementation can fill in the gaps.

Question: I cannot imagine myself reaching perfection in all 5 lifestyle categories? Should I even try to achieve low risk in one or two categories?

Answer: The good news is that there was a linear increase in both life expectancy and disease-free life expectancy as people went from low-risk in one category to low-risk in all 5 categories. I would encourage you to try and achieve low risk status in as many categories as possible, but very few of us, including me, achieve perfection in all 5 categories.

Question: I am past 50 already. Is it too late for me to improve my healthspan?

Answer: Diet and some of the other lifestyle behaviors were remarkably constant over 34 years in both the Nurse’s Health Study and the Health Professional’s Follow-Up Study. That means that the lifespan and healthspan benefits reported in these studies probably resulted from adhering to a healthy lifestyle for most of their adult years.

However, it is never too late to start improving your lifestyle. You may not achieve the full benefits described in these studies, but you still can add years and disease-free years to your life.

How To Calculate Your Alternative Healthy Eating Index

You can calculate your own Alternative Healthy Eating Index score by simply adding up the points you score for each food category below.

Vegetables

Count 2 points for each serving you eat per day (up to 5 servings).

One serving = 1 cup green leafy vegetables or ½ cup for all other vegetables.

Do not count white potatoes or processed vegetables like French fries or kale chips.

Fruits

Count 2½ points for each serving you eat per day (up to 4 servings).

One serving = 1 piece of fruit or ½ cup of berries.

          (do not count fruit juice or fruit incorporated into desserts or pastries). 

Whole Grains

Count 2 points for each serving you eat per day (up to 5 servings).

One serving = ½ cup whole-grain rice, bulgur and other whole grains, cereal, and pasta or 1 slice of bread.

(For processed foods like pasta and bread, the label must say 100% whole grain).

Sugary Drinks and Fruit Juice

Count 10 points if you drink 0 servings per week.

Count 5 points for 3-4 servings per week (½ serving per day).

Count 0 points for 7 or more servings per week (≥1 serving per day).

One serving = 8 oz. fruit juice, sugary soda, sweetened tea, coffee drink, energy drink, or sports drink.

Nuts, Seeds and Beans

Count 10 points if you eat 7 or more servings per week (≥1 serving per day).

Count 5 points for 3-4 servings per week (½ serving per day).

Count 0 points for 0 servings per week.

One serving = 1 oz. nuts or seeds, 1 Tbs. peanut butter, ½ cup beans, 3½ oz. tofu.

Red and Processed Meat

Count 10 points if you eat 0 servings per week.

Count 7 points for 3-4 servings per week (½ serving per day).

Count 3 points for 3 servings per week (1 serving per day).

Count 0 points for ≥1½ servings per day.

One serving = 1½ oz. processed meats (bacon, ham, sausage, hot dogs, deli meat)

          Or 4 oz. red meat (steak, hamburger, pork chops, lamb chops, etc.)

Seafood

Count 10 points if you eat 2 servings per week.

Count 5 points for 1 serving per week.

Count 0 points for 0 servings per week.

1 serving = 4 oz.

Now that you have your total, the scoring system is:

  • 41 or higher is excellent
  • 37-40 is good
  • 33-36 is average (remember that it is average to be sick in this country)
  • 28-32 is below average
  • Below 28 is poor

Finally, for the purposes of these two studies, a score of 37 or higher was considered low risk.

The Bottom Line

Two recent studies have developed a healthy lifestyle score based on diet, exercise, body weight, smoking, and alcohol use. When they compared the effect of lifestyle on both lifespan (life expectancy) and healthspan (disease-free life expectancy), they reported:

  • Women who had had a healthy lifestyle lived 14 years longer than women with an unhealthy lifestyle.
  • Men who had a healthy lifestyle lived 12 years longer than men with an unhealthy lifestyle.
  • Women who had a healthy lifestyle lived 11 years longer free of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than women had an unhealthy lifestyle.
  • Men who had a healthy lifestyle lived 8 years longer free of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than men who had an unhealthy lifestyle.
  • It is not necessary to achieve a perfect lifestyle. Lifespan and healthspan increased in a linear fashion for each low-risk lifestyle behavior (diet, exercise, body weight, smoking, and alcohol use) achieved.
  • These studies did not evaluate whether supplement use also affects healthspan.
    • However, if you calculate your diet with the Alternate Healthy Eating Index they use (see above), you will see that most of us fall short of perfection. Supplementation can fill in the gaps.

The authors concluded: “Our findings suggest that promotion of a healthy lifestyle would help reduce healthcare burdens through lowering the risk of developing multiple chronic diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, and extending disease-free life expectancy.”

For more details, including how to calculate whether you are low risk in each of the 5 lifestyle categories, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Abdominal Fat Shortens Your Lifespan

Your Belly Fat Could Be Killing You

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Belly FatYou’ve probably already heard about the dangers of abdominal obesity (otherwise known as “belly fat“). You’ve probably heard that it increases your risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer.

But did you know that your belly fat could be killing you? And, the weirdest part is that your belly fat could be killing you even if you are at ideal body weight (more about that in a minute).

Abdominal Fat Shortens Your Lifespan

A group of scientists at the National Institutes of Health recently analyzed data collected from 44,000 women in the Nurses’ Health Study over a 16-year period and asked if abdominal obesity affected their death rates from heart disease and cancer (Zhang et al, Circulation, 117: 1658-1667, 2008).

The answer was a clear-cut yes!

The study showed that women with a waist circumference of 35 inches were 2X more likely to die from heart disease and cancer than women with a waist circumference of 28 inches – even if they were at ideal body weight.

Abdominal Fat Can Kill You Even If Your Weight Is In The Normal Range

You might be asking “How could those women be at ideal body weight and still have abdominal obesity?”

There is a natural tendency to lose muscle mass as we age. When we add in the inactivity associated with the American lifestyle that loss of muscle mass is accelerated and the muscle is replaced with fat. Thus, it is actually possible in today’s world to have both normal weight and abdominal obesity – and that is not a good thing!

Of course, the women who were both overweight and had abdominal obesity were even more likely to die from heart disease or cancer. So weight control is not just about looking good in your bathing suit – abdominal obesity is a killer!

However, the good news is that you can do something about abdominal obesity. With exercise and a controlled calorie, high protein diet you can replace that fat with muscle (See my previous article “Do High Protein Diets Reduce Fat And Preserve Muscle?).

The Bottom Line

  • Belly Fat may double the risk of dying from heart disease and cancer in women. The statistics are likely to be similar in men.
  • Because both inactivity and the normal aging process cause us to lose muscle and replace it with fat, many of us have excess belly fat even when we are not overweight.
  • Combining a calorie controlled, high protein diet with exercise can help reverse the process and replace that excess fat with muscle.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Health Tips From The Professor