If there’s one class of nutrients that packs a punch against unhealthy aging, it’s omega fatty acids — particularly omega-3s. This nutrition superstar can help prevent heart disease and stroke and may even lower the risk of dementia. Even though the nutrient is important to have in our diet as we age, experts say most older adults aren’t getting enough.
“Nine out of 10 Americans are deficient in omega-3s,” says James O’Keefe, M.D., cardiologist and medical director of the Charles and Barbara Duboc Cardio Health & Wellness Center at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Missouri. “Across the board, consuming more of these nutrients is likely to reduce the risk of premature death.”
What are omega-3 fatty acids?
As a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid, omega-3s are essential for every facet of wellness later in life. They deliver alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) to the body, helping to reduce inflammation associated with chronic and acute illnesses.
One study in the American Heart Association journal Stroke shows that consuming more DHA is associated with a lower risk of stroke, a leading cause of cardiovascular death. Another study, in Current Clinical Pharmacology, found that EPA and DHA boost the body’s nerve growth factor level, a key element to preventing Alzheimer’s. Omega-3s may even help preserve our hearing, according to the Fatty Acid Research Institute.
But the average American adult consumes only 115 milligrams of EPA and DHA a day, according to O’Keefe; by comparison, the average Japanese adult consumes 1,300 milligrams of EPA and DHA per day. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Japan is home to just one of five global “blue zones” and has the highest life expectancy in the world: 84.3 years, according to the World Health Organization. A diet high in omega fatty acids isn’t the only reason people in Japan tend to live long and healthy lives, but experts say it is likely one of them.
O’Keefe suggests getting at least 1,000 milligrams per day and to favor EPA and DHA, if possible. Here are a few delicious foods high in omega-3s.
Sardines (2 grams of EPA and DHA per 3-ounce serving). Don’t be intimidated by tinned fish. “Canned food, if properly handled and reserved, is a very good source of omega-3 as well as protein,” says Artemis Simopoulos, M.D., founder and president of the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health and author of The Healthiest Diet for You: Scientific Aspects. Eat them right out of the tin, toss them with salad or add them to grain-free crackers (the bones are edible).
Herring (1.5 grams of EPA and DHA per 3-ounce serving). Savory and perfectly mild, fresh and canned herring also contains less mercury than other fish. It can be boiled, sautéed, baked or pickled.
Atlantic salmon (2.4 grams of EPA and DHA per 6-ounce serving). In one study, eating this versatile fish twice weekly helped lower serum triglyceride levels, which is one key to a strong heart.
Flaxseed (1.8 grams of ALA per tablespoon). These seeds are the perfect high-fiber addition to smoothies, salads and other vegetarian dishes. Along with a healthy dose of ALA, you get the fiber you need to stay regular.
Chia seeds (5 grams of ALA per 1-ounce serving). Mix them into sweet and savory dishes to get every essential amino acid you need for better nutrition. Research also shows chia seeds may help improve glucose tolerance and metabolism.