Omega-3 fatty acids may protect lung health, study finds

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A large study in healthy adults, supported by the National Institutes of Health, provides the strongest evidence to date that omega-3 fatty acids, found in abundance in fish and fish oil supplements, may play a crucial role in maintaining lung health.

While diet’s role in diseases like cancer and cardiovascular ailments is well-known, it has been relatively understudied in chronic lung disease.

This research, led by Patricia A. Cassano, Ph.D., director of the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University, underscores the potential importance of dietary omega-3 fatty acids for lung health, too.

Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties that previous studies suggested might contribute to lung disease prevention.

However, solid studies affirming this association have been few, making this study particularly significant.

Study Design and Findings

The research consisted of two parts, both exploring the relationship between omega-3 fatty acid blood levels and lung function over time.

In the first part, a longitudinal, observational study involved 15,063 generally healthy Americans from the NHLBI Pooled Cohorts Study.

These participants, an ethnically diverse group of adults with an average age of 56 years (55% female), were followed for an average of seven years and up to 20 years.

The study found that higher blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids were linked to a slower rate of lung function decline.

The strongest associations were found for docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid rich in fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, and sardines and available as a dietary supplement.

In the second part of the study, genetic data from over 500,000 participants in the UK Biobank were analyzed. Genetic markers in the blood served as an indirect measure, or proxy, for dietary omega-3 fatty acid levels.

The results again suggested that higher omega-3 fatty acid levels, including DHA, correlated with better lung function.

Future Implications

Though the current study only included healthy adults, researchers plan to examine omega-3 fatty acid blood levels in relation to lung function decline in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including heavy smokers.

Bonnie K. Patchen, Ph.D., a nutritionist and member of Cassano’s research team, states that this could eventually lead to individualized dietary recommendations for those at high risk for chronic lung disease, an approach moving toward “precision nutrition.”

In the meantime, it’s worth noting that most Americans fall short of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines recommendation of at least two servings of fish per week.

Omega-3 fatty acids can also be sourced from nuts and seeds, plant oils, and fortified foods.

James P. Kiley, Ph.D., director of the NHLBI’s Division of Lung Diseases, emphasized that more research is needed.

However, these findings raise compelling questions for future studies about the connection between omega-3 fatty acids and lung function.

If you care about nutrition, please read studies that vitamin D can help reduce inflammation, and vitamin K may lower your heart disease risk by a third.

For more information about nutrition, please see recent studies about foods that could sharpen your brain, and results showing cooking food in this way may raise your risk of blindness.

The study was published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

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