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posted: 2/8/2010 12:01 AM

Fish oil good for long life, your telomeres

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Your mother might have told you that eating fish can make you smarter.

What she didn't know is that regular consumption of fish oil might help you live longer.

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In a recent medical study, those who regularly ate fish oil had longer DNA than those who did not - and longer DNA is associated with a longer life.

The ends of DNA are called telomeres. The telomere area does not code for specific genes. Instead, telomeres are points where DNA replication begins. Each time a cell divides a small piece of the telomere is lost. The length of a cell's telomere strongly correlates with how many times a cell can divide before it dies.

The more a cell can divide, the longer the organism will live. Over time, the entire telomere is lost. At that point, with each cell division, important pieces of DNA are lost and the cell dies.

We know that chronic stress results in shorter telomeres and is associated with a shorter life. In contrast, stress reduction can restore telomere length.

Coronary artery disease can be a chronic, stressful condition but eating fish oil confers an increased rate of survival. The question is why? The answer may be found in a recent medical study, presented in the Journal of the American Medical Association. This study showed that people with coronary artery disease who consumed fish oil had longer telomeres compared to those who did not.

The study looked at how fast telomeres shorten in people with coronary artery disease. In this study, 608 participants with coronary artery disease were followed for an average of five years and the amount of fish oil consumed was recorded.

Those with the greatest dietary intake of two specific fish oils - eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic (DHA) - had the longest telomeres. Those with the lowest consumption of EPA and DHA had the shortest telomeres.

Researchers know that EPA and DHA affect DNA directly. It has been demonstrated that these fish oils influence which genes are turned on and off.

It's also known dietary fish oils are associated with increased survival for a number of chronic medical conditions (not just coronary artery disease). This study is the first to directly show that EPA and DHA may increase survival and longevity by slowing the loss of telomere length.

It is interesting that B vitamins and vitamins C, E and D are also associated with a slower loss of telomere length. I believe further research will prove that what we eat is the foundation stone of longevity with vitality - and is well within our control.

•Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network.

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