A low omega-3 index is just as powerful a predictor of early death as smoking



New research published last week in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that a low omega-3 index is as effective as smoking in predicting early death. This groundbreaking finding is based on data taken and analyzed from the Framingham Study, one of the longest-running studies in the world.

The Framingham Heart Study provided unique insight into risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD) and resulted in the development of the Framingham Risk Score based on eight basic standard risk factors – age, gender, smoking, hypertension treatment, diabetes status, systolic blood pressure, total cholesterol (TC) and HDL cholesterol.

CVD is still the leading cause of death worldwide, and changes in behavioral factors such as unhealthy diet, sedentary lifestyle, and tobacco and alcohol consumption can reduce the risk. Hence, the researchers in this study say that biomarkers that incorporate lifestyle choices could help identify individuals at risk and could be useful in evaluating treatment approaches, preventing morbidity, and delaying death.

Diet-based biomarkers include fatty acids (FS), which are measured in plasma or in the red blood cell membrane (RBC). The FS that are most clearly associated with reduced risk for cardiovascular disease and for all-cause mortality (i.e., death from any cause) are the omega-3 FS, EPA, and DHA that are typically found in fish such as salmon and herring occur, as well as omega-3 dietary supplements such as fish and algae oil.

In a 2018 report that included 2,500 participants in the Framingham descendant cohort, followed by a median of 7.3 years (i.e., between the ages of 66 and 73), baseline RBC-EPA and DHA levels [the omega-3 index (O3I)] was significantly and inversely related to the risk of death from all causes.

In fact, people with the highest omega-3 index were 33% less likely to get the disease during the follow-up years than those with the lowest omega-3 index. Similar connections were found in the Memory Study of the Women’s Health Initiative, the Heart and Soul Study and the Ludwigshafen Risk and Cardiovascular Health Study.

The omega-3 index measures the amount of EPA and DHA in the red blood cell membranes and is a marker of omega-3 status. An optimal omega-3 index is 8% or higher, a medium omega-3 index is between 4% and 8%, and a low omega-3 index is 4% and below. Most Americans have an omega-3 index below 4%, which puts them at significantly higher risk of early death.

According to the researchers in this study, the finding that any FA-based metric would have predictive power similar to the established standard risk factors was unexpected and suggests that RBC-FAs – via mechanisms that are not perfectly understood – somehow represent an in vivo environment, that consolidates the effects of all these standard risk factors on the body into one measure.

“It is interesting to note that in Japan, where the average omega-3 index is above 8%, the expected lifespan is about five years longer than in the United States, where the average omega-3 index is around 5, therefore In practice, nutritional choices that alter the omega-3 index may extend life, “said Michael McBurney, PhD, FCNS-SCN, lead researcher on this study. “In the final combined model, smoking and the omega-3 index appear to be the easiest risk factors to modify. A current smoker (aged 65) is expected to subtract more than four years of life (compared to not smoking), a life shortening which corresponds to a low vs. a high omega-3 index. ”

“The information contained in the levels of the four red blood cell fatty acids was as useful in predicting all-round mortality as the information on lipid levels, blood pressure, smoking and diabetes,” said Dr. Bill Harris, who is also the author of this study. “This speaks to the strength of the Omega-3 Index as a risk factor and should be viewed as just as important as the other established risk factors, perhaps even more important.”


This work was supported in part by the Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences (IAFNS) through a grant from the International Life Sciences Institute North America Lipid Committee. IAFNS is a non-profit science organization that pools funds from industrial partners and advances science through in-kind and financial contributions from public and private sector participants.

Media inquiries:

Bill Harris, President, Fatty Acid Research Institute (FARI)

Email: wsh@faresinst.com

Phone: + 1-913-302-9433

Website: http://www.faresinst.org

About the Fatty Acid Research Institute (FARI)

The Fatty Acid Research Institute (FARI) is a non-profit research and education foundation. FARI was founded to accelerate the discovery of the health effects of fatty acids, particularly the long chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. FARI researchers and scientists will be single-mindedly focused on publishing high quality research studies on the diverse relationships between fatty acid levels and human (and animal) health outcomes. These studies will improve the ability to predict disease risk and, more importantly, suggest ways to reduce the risk by changing our diet and / or supplements. http://www.faresinst.org

About the Framingham Study

Since our inception in 1948, the Framingham Heart Study, under the direction of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), formerly known as the National Heart Institute, has been committed to identifying the common factors or characteristics that cause heart -Vascular Diseases Contribute Disease (CVD). We have followed the evolution of CVD over a long period of time through three generations of participants. Our study began in 1948 by recruiting an original cohort of 5,209 men and women, ages 30 to 62, from the city of Framingham, Massachusetts who had not yet developed obvious symptoms of cardiovascular disease or had had a heart attack or stroke. Since then, the study has added a descendant cohort in 1971, the omni cohort in 1994, a third generation cohort in 2002, a new offspring-spouse cohort in 2003, and a second generation omni cohort in 2003. https://framinghamheartstudy.org /

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