From our time in the womb into our elder years, the challenge to stay healthy can come in different forms. Bone loss is one of those physical challenges that goes hand-in-hand with aging. However, instead of assuming we are doomed by the effects of getting older, it’s important to consider supportive dietary interventions.
Most people reach their peak bone mass between ages 25 to 30, but in just one decade (welcome to 40!), we slowly begin to lose it. Age-related bone loss is gradual and progressive in both men and women. Bone remodeling is a process that repairs damaged bone; it replaces old bone with new bone. When resorption increases and formation decreases, the result is the loss of bone mass, coupled with the risks for osteoporosis and increased fractures. This is a public health concern since both osteoporosis and fractures may result in functional losses and increased mortality.
There are natural ways to support bone health, which include nourishing the body, consuming alkaline-promoting foods, exercising, minimizing stress and fortifying the diet with bone-building nutrients. The most common nutrients touted for bone health include calcium, magnesium and vitamin D, but current studies show a positive impact of dietary ratios of omega-3/omega-6 fatty acids on bone health.
The overall consequences of these age-related changes in the bone include cortical thinning, increased cortical porosity, thinning of the trabeculae and loss of trabecular connectivity, all of which reduce bone quality and consequently bone strength. Though this is the case, there is a positive solution to help this health concern via consumption of omega-3 fatty acids. Research indicates a correlation between higher omega-3s and better bone health in older adults. In addition, NASA-sponsored studies also found omega-3s in fish oil may reduce bone breakdown associated with spaceflight. They analyzed dietary intakes and found higher fish intake linked to reduced bone loss during weightlessness.
According to recent research, polyunsaturated fatty acid intakes were examined to determine their role in the prevention or reduction in bone loss associated with aging. The research involved fish intake with risk of hip fracture in the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study. The evaluation demonstrated that women with the highest intake of total polyunsaturated fatty acids had a decreased risk of hip fracture compared to those with the lowest intakes. While a decline in muscle and bone loss is typical with aging, polyunsaturated fatty acids play a key role in bone health and functional mobility.
With a healthy inflammatory response, omega-3 supplementation increased post-prandial muscle protein synthesis. In addition, omega-3s may ease the muscle-related anabolic resistance to flowing amino acids that may be experienced by older adults who are losing muscle (sarcopenia). A cross-sectional study showed that EPA and DHA deficiency were related to poor functional mobility in men. Another randomized double-blind study of 126 post-menopausal women with either 1.2g EPA+DHA or placebo (olive oil supplement) found that, after 6 months, women taking the omega-3 supplement profoundly improved their walking speed compared to controls. This indicates the significant relationship between omega-3s, muscle mass, and functional capacity in older adults.
Fatty fish and fish oil supplements are well-known sources of omega-3s used therapeutically to support cardiovascular, cognitive and joint health. Sufficient intake also contributes to bone health. The significance of fish oil supplementation on bone mass, density, and formation was seen in a rat model study by the Journal of Bone and Mineral Metabolism. Bone mineral content of the femur was noticeably higher in the fish oil group than in the control group. Results also indicated that fish oil may have a positive influence on bone metabolism and can be used to slow down the loss of bone, a process that picks up speed in the years after menopause and continues into the postmenopausal years. While osteoporosis is a condition that mainly affects women, men can also be affected. It is more likely to occur in those who didn’t achieve optimal peak bone mass during bone-building years.
Omega-3 supplementation may also be appropriate across the lifespan contributing to long-term benefits. A study from the BMJ Journal was conducted to examine pregnant women and how fish oil impacts bone and fat mass. This randomized, double-blinded controlled trial consisted of 736 women and their offspring. Fish oil supplementation from the 24th week of pregnancy led to a healthy BMI in the offspring from 0 to 6 years---but not an increased risk of obesity at age 6. In addition, when fish oil supplementation was given to children at age 6, improved body composition helped increase lean body mass. DHA also plays an important role during baby development for visual and neurological health.
With the growing number of health issues today, bone health is an inevitable struggle during the aging process. Suggestions including exercise, minimizing stress and fortifying the diet with calcium, magnesium and vitamin D continue to support bone density, but we now welcome a new player in the support of bone health – omega-3 fatty acids.
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