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September 18, 2019

What Older Adults Should Know About Fish Oil

“Fish oil is a dietary source of omega-3 fatty acids — substances your body needs for many functions, from muscle activity to cell growth. Omega-3 fatty acids are derived from food. They can't be manufactured in the body.” (Mayo Clinic)

Fatty fish — such as salmon, trout, and mackerel — and shellfish are rich sources of omega-3s. In fact, they contain two different types of omega-3s: EPA and DHA. You can get another type of omega-3, ALA, in some varieties of nuts, seeds and vegetable oils. Plus, there are fish oil supplements, available in liquid, pill and capsule form.


Health Benefits

Conversations about the health benefits of fish oil aren’t new, with numerous studies showing how omega-3 fatty acids can have a positive effect on heart health. The benefits of fish oil may go well beyond that, though, as researchers and medical professionals have given them to people with cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and psychiatric disorders with encouraging results. In fact, one study showed that muscle quality improved in women who were given fish oil, causing researchers to suggest that neuromuscular function could be improved in this way.

According to a study released in 2018, when you have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in your blood, it’s linked to a healthier old age. The study tracked 2,622 older adults with an average age of 74. These adults were considered healthy at the beginning of the study and they were tracked to see if they remained that way. After adjusting for medical, lifestyle and dietary factors, researchers compared the 20% of older adults with the lowest levels of omega-3 to those with the highest 20%

The result? Participants with the highest 20% had an 18% lower risk of “unhealthy aging.” They also stated that people with the highest levels got their omega-3 fatty acids from eating seafood.


More About Heart Health

An article in a Harvard publication shares research from the American Heart Association that gives less than a full thumbs up to fish oil supplements, saying how they “may slightly lower the risk of dying of heart failure or after a recent heart attack. But they do not prevent heart disease.”

The Mayo Clinic also steers people toward getting their omega-3 fatty acids from eating fish, not through supplements. Studies cited show that eating salmon or tuna twice a week, for example, can reduce your risk of developing heart disease. Research also indicates that congestive heart failure is less likely in adults with higher levels of EPA.

Other studies show how blood pressure can be somewhat reduced through fish oil supplements, although that’s more likely if the blood pressure is moderate to severe, rather than mild. As far as high cholesterol goes, the Mayo Clinic notes that omega-3 fatty acids can “significantly reduce blood triglyceride levels.”


Side Effects and Safety Issues

Some fish oil supplements have a funky fishy aftertaste. Additional potential side effects include bad breath, nausea, indigestion, loose stool and rashes. With high doses, there’s an increased risk of bleeding and a potentially increased risk of having a stroke and/or suppression of immune responses. If you have an allergy to fish or shellfish, the article notes how it’s unclear whether you can safely take fish oil supplements.

Although the Mayo Clinic calls the supplements generally safe, they say that it’s best to rely on natural sources of omega-3, favoring broiled or baked (not fried!) fish. They also suggest that, if you decide to use fish oil supplements, to do so under your doctor’s supervision.

There can be drug interactions with supplements if you take one or more of the following, among other possibilities:

  • Anticoagulant and antiplatelet drugs (or supplements or herbs)
  • Blood pressure drugs (or supplements or herbs)
  • Orlistat/Xenical/Alli for weight loss

Recipes to Consider

Because research is pointing toward getting your omega-3 fatty acids from eating fish rather than supplements for the greatest health benefits, here are some resources for delicious recipes: Bon Appetit offers 20 recipes here, while Delish.com offers 21 recipes to try.

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