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NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

Omege-3 Fatty Acids Appear Promising for Maintaining Lung Health

Omega-3 fatty acids—abundant in fish and fish oil supplements—appear promising for maintaining lung health, according to new evidence from a large, multi-faceted NIH study in healthy adults. The study provides the strongest evidence to date of this association and underscores the importance of including omega-3 fatty acids in the diet, especially given that many Americans do not meet current guidelines. 

Funded largely by NHLBI, the study results were published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that people eat at least two servings of fish per week. In addition to fish and fish oil, other sources of omega-3 fatty acids include nuts and seeds, plant oils and fortified foods.

Assortment of foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids

Sources of omega-3 fatty acids

Photo: Alexander Prokopenko/Shuttershock

Past studies have suggested that omega-3 fatty acids may contribute to lung disease prevention efforts, due largely to their established anti-inflammatory actions. However, robust studies of this association have been lacking, until now. 

To learn more, researchers developed a two-part study on the link between omega-3 fatty acid levels in the blood and lung function over time. 

In the first part, scientists conducted a longitudinal, observational study involving 15,063 Americans. The participants studied were generally healthy when the study began, were racially diverse, 55% female, with an average age of 56. 

Findings showed that higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in a person’s blood were associated with a reduced rate of lung function decline. The researchers observed the strongest associations for docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid found at high levels in fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and sardines.

In the second part, researchers analyzed genetic data from more than 500,000 European patients from the UK Biobank. They studied certain genetic markers in the blood, which showed that higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids—including DHA—were associated with better lung function. 

As part of this ongoing project, researchers plan to examine whether consuming omega-3 fatty acids could benefit people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD. 

Study first author Dr. Bonnie Patchen, a nutritionist at Cornell, said, “In the future, this could translate into individualized dietary recommendations for people at high risk for chronic lung disease.”

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