Aging is commonly accompanied by loss of muscle and strength.
Weakness among seniors worsens without regular “resistance” exercise using weights or machines.
In turn, loss of muscle and strength is a risk factor for diabetes and falls … and discourages exercise.
No single nutrient or athletic supplement is proven to boost physical capacity to a dramatic degree,and the evidence regarding omega-3s' ability to boost athletes' performance or aid muscle recovery is mixed.
But several studies suggest that seafood-source omega-3s – DHA and EPA – support optimal physical performance throughout life.
Omega-3s and strength: Emerging evidence points to anti-aging benefits
Omega-3 DHA and EPA are essential to human survival … and play critical roles in brain function, immune responses (especially inflammation control), vision, bone health, and more.
In addition – for reasons that remain unclear – it's increasingly apparent that omega-3s support physical strength.
And, as the authors of an evidence review wrote last year, “compelling evidence exists for [seafood-source] omega-3s in conjunction with [strength training] to improve [muscle] function and quality.” (McDonald C et al. 2013)
Three years ago, researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine tested the effects of omega-3 supplements – four grams per day for eight weeks – on the rate at which 25- to 45 year-old men gained muscle protein (Smith GI et al. 2011).
The participants gained more muscle protein and developed larger muscle cells after taking omega-3 supplements, which led the scientists to a clear conclusion: “… omega-3s have anabolic properties in healthy young and middle-aged adults.” (Smith GI et al. 2011)
Last year, Japanese researchers published the results of a clinical trial among 417 elderly participants in the “Tokyo Oldest Old Survey on Total Health” study (Takayama M et al. 2013).
The results showed that the men who consumed the least omega-3s from fish had the worst “functional mobility” … a finding that did not apply to women.
As the Japanese scientists concluded, “habitual intake [of seafood-source omega-3s] was associated with [better] functional mobility in community-dwelling oldest old men” (Takayama M et al. 2013).
Now, the results of a U.S. clinical trial support prior evidence that omega-3s can help men – and women – stay strong as they age.
Clinical trial sees fish oil speeding senior women's pace
The new trial comes from researchers at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, Connecticut (Hutchins-Wiese HL et al. 2013).
They recruited 126 postmenopausal women for a randomized, double blind study lasting six months.
The women were randomly assigned to one of two groups:
In addition, all the participants took calcium and vitamin D supplements.
The first sign that omega-3s support strength came at the outset, when the women with higher blood levels of omega-3 DHA were found to be less frail.
After six months, the women who took fish oil supplements had developed significantly higher blood levels of omega-3 DHA and lower levels of omega-6 AA (a generally pro-inflammatory fatty acid).
And, compared to the placebo group, the fish oil group showed improvements in walking speed and reduced levels of a key marker for inflammation (TNF-alpha).
The researchers also adjusted the results to account for the possible effects of age, antioxidant intake (selenium and vitamin C), osteoarthritis, frailty type, and inflammation.
After this adjustment, the improvements in walking speed were attributed to the fish oil group's higher levels of DHA and lower levels of omega-6 AA.
As the UCONN team wrote, “Physical performance, measured by change in walking speed, was significantly affected [improved] by fish oil supplementation.” (Hutchins-Wiese HL et al. 2013)
They proposed that fish oil produced this benefit in part through interactions with the volunteers' bodily antioxidants and inflammatory responses.
Regardless of the reason, the results of the UCONN trial suggest that it's wise for aging women to get plenty of fish or fish oil.
Brilla LR, Landerholm TE. (1990). Effect of fish oil supplementation and exercise on serum lipids and aerobic fitness. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 30, 173–180.
Bruckner G, Webb P, Greenwell L, Chow C, Richardson D. (1987). Fish oil increases peripheral capillary blood cell velocity in humans. Atherosclerosis, 66, 237–245.
Hill AM, Buckley JD, Murphy KJ, Howe PR. Combining fish-oil supplements with regular aerobic exercise improves body composition and cardiovascular disease risk factors. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 May;85(5):1267-74.
Hutchins-Wiese HL, Kleppinger A, Annis K, Liva E, Lammi-Keefe CJ, Durham HA, Kenny AM. The impact of supplemental n-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids and dietary antioxidants on physical performance in postmenopausal women. J Nutr Health Aging. 2013 Jan;17(1):76-80. doi: 10.1007/s12603-012-0415-3.
McDonald C, Bauer J, Capra S. Omega-3 fatty acids and changes in LBM: alone or in synergy for better muscle health? Can J Physiol Pharmacol. 2013 Jun;91(6):459-68. doi: 10.1139/cjpp-2012-0304. Epub 2012 Nov 21. Review.
Raastad T, Hostmark AT, Stromme SB. (1997). Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation does not improve maximal aerobic power, anaerobic threshold and running performance in well-trained soccer players. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 7, 25–31.
Smith GI, Atherton P, Reeds DN, Mohammed BS, Rankin D, Rennie MJ, Mittendorfer B. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids augment the muscle protein anabolic response to hyperinsulinaemia-hyperaminoacidaemia in healthy young and middle-aged men and women. Clin Sci (Lond). 2011 Sep;121(6):267-78. doi: 10.1042/CS20100597.
Takayama M, Arai Y, Sasaki S, Hashimoto M, Shimizu K, Abe Y, Hirose N. Association of marine-origin n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids consumption and functional mobility in the community-dwelling oldest old. J Nutr Health Aging. 2013 Jan;17(1):82-9. doi: 10.1007/s12603-012-0389-1.
Walser B, Giordano RM, Stebbins CL. Dietary supplementation with DHA and EPA augments skeletal muscle blood flow during rhythmic contraction. Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, #688.8, San Diego, CA, April, 2005.
Watkins BA, et al. Dietary supplementation with n-3 PUFA attenuated musculoskeletal atrophy associated with disuse. Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, Washington D.C., April, 2004. Abstract #610.4.