We are born, we live, we die: this is the law of nature and no one is exempt, not even the rich and famous. They might choose to indulge in facelifts, botox and fillers in order to keep at least the look of youth, but ultimately our mortal shell will degrade.
There have been countless philosophical and scientific discussions about how and why we age, why cells in the body die and what influences the rate of cell death. One postulated theory is that cells constantly renew themselves and the older we get, the slower our cells regenerate and eventually they don’t regenerate at all, at which point death would set in.
Another point of view – and this is the one we are interested in here – suggests that the length of a tiny structure called a telomere is indicative of how long we live and when we die. A telomere is a tail-like appendix of each strand of DNA. Every time a cell has to be replicated, DNA is copied to the new cell and with each copy the telomere gets shorter. Compare the telomere to the ink in your printer. Every time you print a page or make a photo copy your ink will decrease until you finally run out and are politely prompted to refill. Not only do telomeres get shorter as we age, they also seem to reduce in length in relation to chronic disease. People with cognitive impairment, chronic inflammation and coronary heart disease all show the same phenomenon of shortened telomeres. It all sounds rather depressing, this could be seen as a ticking time bomb where losing length means literally losing years of your life. Just like a biological timer, counting down the telomeres until we run out… It is almost a measurable predictor of death that is far more reliable than any self-proclaimed psychic at the pub on a Sunday night.
But we like to view the glass as half full rather than half empty! Short telomeres are not always bad news, at least not if you decide to turn back time on your DNA clock and take your life expectancy into your own hands. Even though ageing is inevitable, chronic disease is not and I dare to say that a shortening in telomeres can be stopped or even reversed. No, I am not promising the fabled fountain of youth or the secrets to eternal life…… all I am offering is an oily, pink fillet of salmon!
Astonishingly, there is reliable clinical evidence that people who supplement with omega-3 fatty acids are able to add length to their telomeres. Believe it or not, this is one of the first incidences that supplements have shown to have a direct impact on ageing. You might have been told otherwise by countless anti-wrinkle, anti-ageing and anti-everything commercials but it is pretty clear that a cocktail of chemicals slathered on your skin or artificial nutrients swallowed in a pill have never shown actual results in terms of long term ageing and health. Of course, a good amount of natural antioxidants like vitamins C and E, zinc and other flavonoid compounds massively contribute to cell health and play a vital role in our defence system against oxidative damage. EPA found in fish oil has been shown to reduce oxidative stress caused by free radicals in the blood by up to 15%, therefore protecting cells and making sure DNA and telomeres are copied properly. Another bit of research has documented that omega-3s from fish effectively lower inflammatory markers which would ultimately cause damage to cells and therefore accelerate the ageing and chronic disease process. In one particular trial published in 2013, people taking omega-6 fatty acids experienced the most dramatic shortening of telomeres. Those who took omega-3 fatty acids with a combination of EPA and DHA showed a ‘very small’ amount of shortening while the group who received the highest amount of EPA only experienced ‘trivial’ shortening.
One thing is clear, shifting the balance from omega-6 to omega-3 clearly has a positive effect not only on overall health, chronic disease and persistent inflammation but also on healthy ageing and possibly even life span. Pile the salmon, mackerel and sardines high on your plate instead of spending precious pennies and pounds on miracle creams and wonder pills. Surely, increasing your intake of fish oil has to be the first step but it should be noted as mentioned above: results from clinical trials did not occur in subjects who just had a diet high in omega-3. All test subjects were supplemented with a high quality omega-3 fish oil at levels of 2.5 grams a day containing at least 1.6 grams of highly active EPA. After all, the key to longevity and vitality might have been swimming in front of our eyes all along. Or it might already be waiting for you in your kitchen cupboard or on the shelf of a health shop, innocently disguised as fish oil!