NIH-funded study finds omega-3 fatty acids benefit lung health

Restaurant-goers eating crab.

Omega-3 fatty acids have been found to hold promise for maintaining the lung health of people who eat them, according to a study backed by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

Researchers developed a two-part study, including a longitudinal, observational study of 15,063 Americans, investigating the link between omega-3 fatty acid levels in the blood and lung function over time. The study showed higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in a person’s blood were associated with a reduced rate of lung function decline, according to the NIH, with the strongest associations of positive health benefits attributed to docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid found in high levels in fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, and sardines.

A second phase of the study analyzed genetic data from more than 500,000 European participants, which also found higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids were associated with better lung function.

“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,” Cornell University Division of Nutritional Sciences Director Patricia A. Cassano, one of the study’s authors, said. “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.”

James P. Kiley, the director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Division of Lung Diseases, which backed the study through NIH funding, said the research “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.”

“This large population-based study suggests that nutrients with anti-inflammatory properties may help to maintain lung health,” Kiley said. “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.”

Previous research had hinted omega-3 fatty acids might maintain or improve lung health due to their anti-inflammatory benefits, but this is the first robust study of the linkage, according to Kiley, who said there is increased interest in trying to understand whether nutritional interventions could contribute to lung disease prevention efforts. In the meantime, the researchers said Americans will likely enjoy numerous health benefits from following the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommend people eat at least two servings of fish per week.

The study’s researchers are now collaborating with the COPDGene study to examine blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids in relation to the rate of decline in lung function among people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including heavy smokers, to determine if omega-3 consumption benefits them as well, as the initial study only studied healthy adults.

“We’re starting to turn a corner in nutritional research and really moving toward precision nutrition for treating lung diseases,” Cornell University Researcher Bonnie K. Patchen, the study’s lead author, said. “In the future, this could translate into individualized dietary recommendations for people at high risk for chronic lung disease.”

The study, “Investigating Associations of Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Lung Function Decline, and Airway Obstruction,” was published in July 2023 in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

Photo courtesy of Tom Wang/Shutterstock


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