Study reinforces that high omega-3 levels can fight frailty in elderly

A new study using data from a large population cohort has found that high omega-3 levels correlate to less frailty among elderly subjects.

Hank Schultz, Senior Editor

April 8, 2024

3 Min Read

At a Glance

  • Latest omega-3s study used data from large UK Biobank population study.
  • Results found that elderly subjects with most omega-3s in tissues had fewest problems with frailty.
  • Mechanism is unclear but might be linked to inflammation.

A new study using a large data set shows that seniors with higher omega-3 levels are less likely to become frail. 

The new research, “Association of plasma n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid levels and the prevalence of frailty in older adults: a cross-sectional analysis of UK Biobank,” was published in The Journals of Gerontology. It was the work of researchers associated with universities and institutes in Seoul, South Korea, Chicago, and Sioux Falls, S.D.

The paper used data collected in the UK Biobank, which is a large population-based cohort of participants between ages 40 and 69, recruited from 22 assessment centers between March 2006 and December 2010 in England, Scotland, and Wales.

More than 500,000 participants enrolled in the program. For the present paper, the authors whittled that down to about 79,000 participants, excluding those who were younger than 65 and for whom data was missing on frailty, oil fish intake and dietary supplement use.

Most of those subjects were excluded in turn because missing data on their baseline omega-3 levels. Of the original UK Biobank cohort, only a smaller subset had had their omega-3 levels tested.

That left the researchers with 18,802 subjects, achieving a fully randomized selection from the full data set.

The primary focus of the paper was the possible protective effect of higher omega-3 levels on the development of frailty in older adults. While the concept of frailty is not difficult to understand, gerontology doctors use specific diagnostic criteria to identify the condition.

According to The Mayo Clinic, frailty is “characterized by vulnerability to acute stressors and is a consequence of decline in overall function and physiologic reserves. An estimated 7% of the U.S. population older than 65 years and 30% of octogenarians are frail. The domains to define frailty include mobility, strength, balance, motor processing, cognition, nutrition, endurance and physical activity.”

High omega-3 levels – low frailty connection observed in past studies

The authors of the new research noted that associations between low fish intake and increased risk of developing frailty have been observed in past papers using elderly subjects from Ecuador, Ireland, Japan and South Korea. Another study from Taiwan showed that seniors who used the most fish oil supplements had the lowest incidence of frailty.

The researchers noted the mechanism by which some elderly individuals become frail while others don’t is not fully understood but is postulated to be associated with systemic inflammation. Higher omega-3 levels have been associated with lower levels of inflammation in past research.

Higher omega-3s correlated with better status on all measures

To assess the level of frailty among the subjects, the researchers referenced an index that used five criteria (weight loss, exhaustion, low physical activity, low grip strength and slow walking pace) with a score range of 0-5. Participants who met three or more criteria were considered frail.

Participants responded to survey questions such as, “Compared with one year ago, has your weight changed?” Other measures were scored via questionnaire answers too. Grip strength was the exception, having been measured with a standard grip strength device.

The researchers found that the subjects with the highest omega-3 levels were the least frail based on the five measures used. They reported less exhaustion, better physical activity, they walked faster, and their grip strength was better. In addition, they reported less unintended weight loss.

Message becoming clearer: Higher omega-3 levels help you age more gracefully

William S. Harris, a coauthor of the paper and founder of the Fatty Acid Research Institute, said the message about how higher omega-3 levels can support healthy aging is becoming increasingly clear.

“This paper from over 18,000 people in the UK Biobank confirms previous work by Yongsoon Park and her colleagues in Koreans where a low Omega-3 Index was associated with increased frailty,” Harris told Natural Products Insider. “Their findings are consistent with the need for elderly people to maintain a high Omega-3 Index to reduce their risk for becoming frail.”

About the Author(s)

Hank Schultz

Senior Editor, Informa

Hank Schultz has been the senior editor of Natural Products Insider since early 2023. He can be reached at [email protected]

Prior to joining the Informa team, he was an editor at NutraIngredients-USA, a William Reed Business Media publication.

His approach to industry journalism was formed via a long career in the daily newspaper field. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with degrees in journalism and German, Hank was an editor at the Tempe Daily News in Arizona. He followed that with a long stint working at the Rocky Mountain News, a now defunct daily newspaper in Denver, where he rose to be one of the city editors. The newspaper won two Pulitzer Prizes during his time there.

The changing landscape of the newspaper industry led him to explore other career paths. He began his career in the natural products industry more than a decade ago at New Hope Natural Media, which was then part of Penton and now is an Informa brand. Hank formed friendships and partnerships within the industry that still inform his work to this day, which helps him to bring an insider’s perspective, tempered with an objective journalist’s sensibility, to his in-depth reporting.

Harkening back to his newspaper days, Hank considers the readers to be the primary stakeholders whose needs must be met. Report the news quickly, comprehensively and above all, fairly, and readership and sponsorships will follow.

In 2015, Hank was recognized by the American Herbal Products Association with a Special Award for Journalistic Excellence.

When he’s not reporting on the supplement industry, Hank enjoys many outside pursuits. Those include long distance bicycle touring, mountain climbing, sailing, kayaking and fishing. Less strenuous pastimes include travel, reading (novels and nonfiction), studying German, noodling on a harmonica, sketching and a daily dose of word puzzles in The New York Times.

Last but far from least, Hank is a lifelong fan and part owner of the Green Bay Packers.

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