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A heart-healthy lifestyle should start early in life. Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation can help.
The human heart starts beating and circulating oxygen-laden blood to a fetus from the first few weeks after conception. The heart is the very first organ to form in all mammals, and as the body grows, so does the heart-beat by beat-and performs the colossal task of beating continuously until the very moment we die. Thanks to modern advances in health science and healthy lifestyles, it is increasingly likely that our hearts will beat well beyond 80 years. In fact, the percentage of octogenarians (a person 80- to 89-years-old) in the United States is predicted to double in the next 30-40 years to 8% (33 million).1
How can we ensure that we will live full and satisfying lives into our 80s? It is well known that managing one’s cholesterol, blood pressure, and BMI (body mass index) through diet and lifestyle choices, along with avoiding smoking and secondhand smoke, are the keys to preventing cardiovascular disease (CVD). It is especially apparent that a plant-based diet-flexitarian, Mediterranean, and vegan diets all qualify-not only supports heart health but in some cases may favorably reverse the classic CVD markers. The more we embrace meals that are composed of whole foods that our pre-industrial ancestors ate for millennia-a diet dominated by vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, pulses, whole grains, etc., and only occasionally supported by fish, fowl, or lean meats-the more likely we will keep our hearts healthy for the long haul.
Attention, Young Adults
But, in a new, globalized twist on these standard teachings in heart health, it is becoming clear that young adults, who are generally thought to be fairly immune to CVD onset risks, need to invest earlier in healthy choices. As reported recently by the Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support (ACLS) Training Center, which certifies advanced cardiac life support responders, “The younger population is often unaware that they may be at risk and may fail to take the appropriate actions that could save their lives…In particular, childhood obesity has quickly become a global epidemic where 1 in 10 children are estimated to be overweight. Obesity can lead to precursors for CVD such as dyslipidemia (high cholesterol), hypertension (high blood pressure), type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. If these conditions are left unchecked, premature cardiovascular disease can occur, leading to significant health problems in young adults.”2
These are not alarmist admonitions; these are factual statistics. Unfortunately, we may be at the tip of an iceberg of societal CVD health challenges, not among SilverSneakers and baby boomers, but their children and grandchildren.
When we consider the “perfect storm” of sedentary, Internet-dominated lifestyles; sugar- and caffeine-laden energy drinks marketed to teens; proliferating fast-food diets suffused by saturated and pro-inflammatory fats, refined flours, and corn syrup; and greater urbanization in which young people fail to experience how food grows, it makes sense that many young adults are entering pre-CVD risk status far earlier than their parents and grandparents did. This was confirmed by a recent 2018 comprehensive study3 carried out at the University of Copenhagen looking at the epidemiology of cardiovascular disease in young adults. Key findings included:
This is fairly concerning. We like to think of young adults as being aware of good nutrition and active lifestyle benefits. We think, as baby boomers and Gen X parents, that our good diet and lifestyle habits reaching back to Diet for a Small Planet, The Moosewood Cookbook, and a macrobiotic diet are transmitting to our children and their children. The reality, however, still looks more like a super-sized McMeal. The world of the “gig economy,” remote off-site employment, less time for cooking meals from scratch, and far more time spent sitting in front of screens has changed the trajectory of wellness for young adults in profound ways, one of which shows up now in diverging heart health trends between people over 50 and young adults.
The root teaching here is that a heart-healthy lifestyle should start at any age, and the sooner one starts-as a kid, as a teenager, as a young adult, as an empty-nester, as a senior-the more likely it is that our hearts will sustain us, not just keeping us alive but as the vital force and engine behind vibrant, active lives we can well expect to continue into our 80s and 90s.
How we get there, of course, depends both on conscious choices we make and on our genetics. While the genetic factors are much less malleable, we can stack the deck in our favor by adopting commonsense dietary choices and sticking to them. The American Heart Association and the Mayo Clinic are both excellent resources to tap for heart-healthy strategies.4,5
Omega Fatty Acid Benefits
A very recently published study led by one of the co-founders of The Omega-3 Index (a measurement of omega-3 levels in the blood) gives even more credence to the notion that a heart-healthy lifestyle should start early in life and that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation can help. As reported widely in June 2018, a Swiss study6 of 2000 healthy young adults found that subjects’ blood pressure levels correlated inversely with their circulating omega-3 levels. Since hypertension is known to be one of the key factors driving CVD risk, the fact that young adults can effectively lower blood pressure-along with other known cognitive-, joint-, skin-, and immune-health benefits-by raising their circulating omega-3 levels means it makes sense to boost one’s omega-3-rich food or supplement intake.
Young adults can improve their long-term prospects for a healthy heart by, for instance, sustaining higher omega-3 levels. Supplementing early on is akin to making early and regular deposits into a retirement savings accounts, letting the balance compound over many decades. Large cohort studies like the recently updated Cochrane review7, whose authors concluded that “moderate- and high-quality evidence suggests that increasing EPA and DHA has little or no effect on mortality or cardiovascular health,” often fail to embrace the totality of evidence supporting strong links between elevated omega-3 levels and avoided CVD incidence, with results that can fall prey to having too little specificity on measured endpoints (too much noise) to be of statistical value.
It should be made absolutely clear, however, that the typical Western industrial diet rooted in meat, wheat, sugar, salt, and saturated fats, compounded by a quasi-sedentary lifestyle, will not serve our young well, and that we must also embrace well-documented healthy-lifestyle strategies to help young adults increase their cardiovascular protection.
The value of a plant-centered diet supplemented by vegan omega sources is especially compelling from a personal and planetary health standpoint. Manufacturers should seek innovative and compelling omega sources that check all of the boxes for balanced omega-3-6-9 delivery, versatility, and clean taste that young people especially expect. Luckily for formulators, there is a range of plant-based omega sources to choose from.
One option is Ahiflower oil (Buglossoides arvensis), which provides essential omega-3, -6, and -9 fatty acids. Ahiflower oil contains the omega-6 fatty acid gamma linolenic acid (GLA) not present in fish and flax, and unlike other omega plant sources, also contains the omega-3 fatty acid stearidonic acid (SDA).* Most omega plant sources contain omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), but omega-3 SDA converts more readily into heart-healthy EPA.
Other naturally occurring plant-based omega-3-6-9 sources include hemp, blackcurrant, and echium seed oils. These oils also contain omega-3 SDA and omega-6 GLA; however, these oils may have significantly lower combined effective omega-3-6-9 content.
Flaxseed, chia, perilla, camelina, and sacha inchi oils have significant omega-3 ALA content but lack SDA and also lack GLA. Evening primrose and borage oils, of course, are both good sources of GLA, but have insignificant omega-3 content.
Algal omega sources are also proliferating in vegan milk and meat substitutes. And, for flexitarians who choose to add some animal-based foods in their diets, wild harvested and fresh-frozen fish and mollusks are also a great way to keep one’s omega-3 levels topped up.
The author Paul Greenberg’s new bracing book, The Omega Principle,8 dives deep into the challenges and opportunities facing marine-sourced omega-3 supplements. He advocates what he dubs a “pesca-terranean” diet centered on a sustainable ecosystem-based approach to a sustainable diet for our evermore populated planet. Products and resources like the plant-based omega ingredients highlighted above give hope that a recent, alarming trend away from long-term improvements in cardiovascular health can be reversed, indeed prevented, among the young who have no particular genetic tendencies to develop CVD in later life. Our intrepid hearts deserve no less.
* Editor’s note: Author’s company supplies Ahiflower oil, which is distributed in North America by Stratum Nutrition (Carthage, MO).
Greg Cumberford is vice president of Nature's Crops International (Kensington, PE, Canada). He is a 30-year developer of co-evolved wellness solutions for vertically integrated novel plant-based product brands.