Omega-3 fatty acids, which are abundant in fish and fish oil supplements, appear promising for maintaining lung health, according to new evidence from a large, multi-faceted study in healthy adults supported by the National Institutes of Health.
The study provides strong evidence of this association and underscores the importance of including omega-3 fatty acids in the diet, especially given that many Americans do not meet current guidelines. Funded largely by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of NIH, the study results were published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
There’s increased interest in trying to understand whether nutritional interventions could contribute to lung disease prevention efforts. Past studies have suggested that omega-3 fatty acids may help, due largely to their established anti-inflammatory actions.
To learn more, researchers developed a two-part study investigating the link between omega-3 fatty acid levels in the blood and lung function over time. In the first part, the researchers conducted a longitudinal, observational study involving 15,063 Americans from the NHLBI Pooled Cohorts Study — a large collection of NIH-funded studies that helps researchers to study determinants of personalized risk for chronic lung disease.
The participants studied were generally healthy when the study began, and the majority had no evidence of chronic lung disease. They comprised a racially diverse group of adults, with an average age of 56 years, and 55% were female. The researchers followed participants for an average of seven years and up to 20 years. The longitudinal study showed that higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in a person’s blood were associated with a reduced rate of lung function decline. The researchers observed the strongest associations for docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid that is found at high levels in fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, and sardines. DHA is also available as a dietary supplement.
In the second part, the researchers analyzed genetic data from a large study of European patients (over 500,000 participants) from the UK Biobank. They studied certain genetic markers in the blood as an indirect measure, or proxy, for dietary omega-3 fatty acid levels to see how they correlated with lung health. The results showed that higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids — including DHA — were associated with better lung function.