Omega-3 Fatty Acids May Help Maintain Lung Health


New evidence from a large-scale study supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggests that omega-3 fatty acids could potentially reduce the risk of lung function decline.

The study, published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, aimed to understand better the association between omega-3 fatty acids and lung health. 

“We know a lot about the role of diet in cancer and cardiovascular diseases, but the role of diet in chronic lung disease is somewhat understudied,” said corresponding author Patricia A. Cassano, PhD, director of the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “This study adds to growing evidence that omega-3 fatty acids, which are part of a healthy diet, may be important for lung health too.”

The investigation had two parts. The first was a longitudinal observational study involving 15,063 participants from the National Health, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) Cohorts Study, a collection of NIH-funded studies on determinants of personalized risk for chronic lung disease. All the participants were generally healthy when the trial began, showing no signs of chronic lung disease. The study group was comprised of diverse adults with an average age of 56 years old, 55 percent of whom were female. Researchers followed the participants for up to 20 years, averaging seven years.

Results from the first half of the study showed that higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in a person’s blood were associated with a reduced rate of lung function decline. Researchers observed the strongest associations for docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid found in fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and sardines.

Part two of the investigation analyzed genetic data from a study involving over 500,000 European participants from the UK Biobank. Researchers studied specific genetic markers in the blood as a proxy for dietary omega-3 fatty acid levels to observe any correlations to lung health. The results showed that higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA, were associated with better lung function.

According to researchers, these findings indicate that omega-3 fatty acids can benefit lung health. However, they noted that the study only observed the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on healthy people. Future studies, they say, should investigate whether omega-3 fatty acids have similar benefits in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

"This large population-based study suggests that nutrients with anti-inflammatory properties may help to maintain lung health," said James Kiley, PhD, director of the NHLBI's Division of Lung Diseases. "More research is needed since these findings raise interesting questions for future prospective studies about the link between omega-3 fatty acids and lung function."

This and future studies could lead to interventions involving omega-3 fatty acids to prevent and treat lung disease, the study’s authors explained. Until then, researchers said to refer to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans for instruction on omega-3 fatty acid consumption, which recommends at least two servings of fish per week. According to researchers, other sources of omega-3 include nuts, seeds, plant oils, and fortified foods. 

"We're starting to turn a corner in nutritional research and really moving toward precision nutrition for treating lung diseases," said the study’s first author Bonnie Patchen, PhD, a nutritionist and member of Cassano’s research team at Cornell. “In the future, this could translate into individualized dietary recommendations for people at high risk for chronic lung disease.”