It's well-known that omega-3 fatty acids have beneficial effects. They can help the body fight off cancer cells and reduce the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
It appears we can now add reducing the risk of hip fractures to this list of omega 3 health benefits, a finding that could be very good news for older adults.
Broken hips are one of the most common fractures related to osteoporosis — which affects one out of every two women above the age of 50. Osteoporosis involves the gradual weakening of bone tissue until it breaks. Only 40% of people who have a fracture are able to retain their previous level of activity.
Using records compiled from the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI), a large national prospective study of postmenopausal women that followed participants for 15 years since 1998, researchers at Ohio State University noticed that women who had a higher level of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood had a lower incidence of hip fractures.
The scientists wanted to test the idea that the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on lower hip fractures might be due to the ability of omega-3 intake to reduce chronic inflammation. Inflammation contributes to a process called bone resorption, during which the bone tissue is broken down by the release of cells called osteoclasts.
Rather than reviewing the participants’ food intake, the researchers directly measured women's omega-3 exposure. What they did was look for the presence of omega-3 fatty acids in red blood cells to determine if bone cells were forming in an omega-3 environment.
Using the blood records, the researchers confirmed that women with higher total levels of omega-3 fatty acids had a lower incidence of hip fractures. Looking deeper, they discovered that two specific omega-3s were the most beneficial — alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
ALA is typically derived from plant sources such as flaxseed oil and nuts. EPA is found mostly in fatty forms of fish such as swordfish and albacore tuna. Both of these omega-3 fatty acids confer many beneficial effects on the human body including boosting cognition, which is especially important for seniors.
Women who had the highest ratio of omega-6 fatty acids, a more commonly ingested unsaturated fat, had nearly twice the risk of hip fractures compared to women with lower ratios. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in corn, soybean, safflower and sunflower oils. Typically, the American consumer has a 15-17-fold higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in their body. This type of ratio is less beneficial for hearts as well as bones.
Previous research has suggested that Americans try to decrease this ratio and improve overall health by consuming more omega-3 fatty acids, either from plant or fish sources. However, since the current study did not measure cause and effect, only correlation, the researchers cannot say for sure that consuming omega-3 fatty acids can protect against hip fractures in postmenopausal women.
“Though it's premature to make a nutrition recommendation based on this work, I do think this study adds a little more strength to current recommendations to include more omega-3s in the diet, “ Tonya Orchard, assistant professor of human nutrition, said in a statement.
The study was published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research.
Women who had a higher level of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood had a lower incidence of hip fractures.