Anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids may help stave off conditions linked to aging like Alzheimer’s and heart disease

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats long held to be good for health. These fats provide the starting point for the production of hormones that regulate blood clotting, the contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation. Studies show that omega-3 fatty acids help prevent age-related conditions like heart disease, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease, and that eating enough foods rich in these healthy fats is associated with lower disease risk.

Many of these benefits stem from omega-3 fatty acids’ anti-inflammatory effects. Read the evidence below to learn more about inflammation and omega-3’s protective role against it.

Age-related diseases linked to inflammation

While it is not proven that inflammation by itself causes heart disease, the condition is fairly common among heart disease and stroke patients and is thought to be a sign of atherosclerosis – the buildup of fatty deposits in the inner arterial walls.

“Think about a splinter in your finger or an abscess on a tooth,” said Donna Arnett, chair and professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“Our body launches an attack with our white blood cells and chemicals that results in redness and swelling to kill the bacteria or rid the body of the intruder,” said Arnett. In the same manner, risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and cigarette smoking can “injure” the heart and promote atherosclerosis.

Inflammation may also play a significant role in the development of Alzheimer’s. Studies of the brains of Alzheimer’s patients indicate elevated levels of inflammation factors compared to healthy brains. What’s more, the increased release of pro-inflammatory chemicals is only observed in the areas of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s.


The widely-accepted view is that the factors leading to Alzheimer’s overstimulate pro-inflammatory cells called microglia. This causes them to become overactive and produce large amounts of cytokines – proteins that contribute to inflammation.

Age-related diseases like Type 2 diabetes and osteoarthritis are also linked to chronic inflammation. Enzymes that play a role in chronic inflammation increase insulin resistance, and osteoarthritis results in the inflammation of the joints even though it is traditionally considered a form of non-inflammatory arthritis. In fact, researchers from a 2013 study called osteoarthritis an inflammatory disease.

Anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids

Studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids helps lower inflammation. In one study, published in the journal Autophagy, Norwegian and American researchers found that omega-3 fatty acids increase autophagy in immune cells called macrophages.

Autophagy literally means “self-eating” and is the body’s way of eliminating damaged cells to regenerate new and healthy cells. This process is constant in all cells and gets increased when cells are starving or damaged. The researchers hypothesized that omega-3 fatty acids lower inflammation by elevating autophagy in macrophages. This process can change the signal transformation in the immune cells and therefore suppress the activation of inflammatory reactions, explained the researchers.

To test their hypothesis, the team isolated macrophages from mice and humans and applied omega-3 fatty acids to the cells. They found that the fatty acids activated autophagy and specifically targeted proteins that transform the signals in the cell environment, reducing inflammatory mechanisms within the immune cells.

The researchers cross-referenced their findings with the blood samples of cardiac transplant patients who experienced improvements after taking omega-3 supplements. The team found that these samples contained reduced levels of certain pro-inflammatory proteins. (Related: Reduce inflammation with the ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.)

Boost your intake of omega-3 fatty acids to lower your risk of age-related conditions like heart disease and Alzheimer’s. These healthy fats are commonly found in fish oil supplements and fatty fish like mackerel and salmon. Omega-3 supplements are safe at doses of 3,000 milligrams and below per day.

Learn more about the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids at

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