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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Aging and Fish Oil

Oils from fish have been touted for years as elixirs of health; think cod liver oil in Victorian novels. More recently, fish oil, and specifically omega-3 fatty acids, have contributed to the demise of legions of cold-water fish. Now a study in JAMA, Association of Marine Omega-3 Fatty Acid Levels With Telomeric Aging in Patients With Coronary Heart Disease, is likely to accelerate the carnage.

This study is a fascinating demonstration of 'bench to bedside' medicine, something embraced at Johns Hopkins. Telomeres are the ends of chromosomes, presumably there to protect the actual business DNA of the cell each time it divides. It's been known for some time that as cells divide over the course of the lifetime of an organism, the telomeres get shorter. Nobel laureate Carol Greider, a member of the faculty at Johns Hopkins, was cited for her work on telomerase, an enzyme that is involved with preservation of telomeres.

Now it turns out that fish oils help preserve telomere length. The authors of this study thought that might be the case and developed the hypothesis that telomere preservation may account for the protective effects of fish oils in patients with cardiovascular disease. They looked at levels of omega-3 fatty acids in over 600 patients with known coronary artery disease and measured blood levels of the two primary omega-3 fatty acids, and assessed telomere length over a five year period. They found that those participants with the highest levels of the omega-3s had the longest telomeres.

Another interesting finding was that those who had the longest telomeres at the beginning of the study experienced the greatest benefit from omega-3s in terms of preservation. What this suggests to me is that it's good to start early in terms of fish oil consumption.

Lots of questions remain, of course, especially the supplement versus dietary consumption of fatty acids, but the impact of telomere length on aging and disease is something we expect to hear more and more about.

Other topics this week include obesity rates and obesity in children in this week's JAMA, risks of opioid medications in people taking them for chronic pain in Annals of Internal Medicine, and the risk of sudden death and occasional use of cocaine in the European Heart Journal. Please listen at Until next week, y'all live well.

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