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Sarcopenia is an age-related progressive condition characterized by the loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength. It is one of the leading causes of functional decline and loss of independence in older adults. Contributing factors for sarcopenia include poor nutrition, low physical activity, and inflammation, among others. Findings from a recent meta-analysis suggest that omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial in preventing or treating sarcopenia.

Omega-3 fatty acids participate in a wide range of physiological processes and are essential for human health. Some evidence demonstrates that omega-3 fatty acids play roles in muscle mass synthesis and function. Omega-3 fatty acids include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is found mainly in plant oils such as flaxseed, soybean, and canola oils. DHA and EPA are found in fish and other seafood. The human body can convert some ALA into EPA and then to DHA, but the process is very inefficient.

The authors analyzed data from 10 randomized controlled intervention trials investigating the effects of increased omega-3 fatty acid intake on skeletal muscle mass, muscle strength, or muscle performance. More than 550 adults aged 60 years and older were included in the studies, the duration of which spanned 10 to 24 weeks. Outcomes included changes in muscle mass, muscle strength, or physical performance, assessed by walking time or the Timed Up & Go Test (TUG).

The trials provided omega-3 fatty acids from a variety of sources, including fish oil, flax oil, and healthy dietary patterns that adhered to a low omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. Doses ranged from 0.16 to 2.6 gram per day of EPA and from 0 to 1.8 grams per day of DHA. One study provided 14.0 gram per day of ALA. The participants saw increases in muscle mass of about 0.33 kilograms (~11 ounces), and their TUG test times decreased by 30 seconds. Participants who consumed more than 2 grams of omega-3s per day saw greater improvements, with increases in muscle mass of 0.67 kilograms (~1.8 pounds). Among those enrolled in interventions lasting six months or longer, walking times improved by nearly 2 meters per second.

These findings suggest that nutritional interventions that include dietary and/or supplemental omega-3 fatty acids improve muscle mass and physical performance in older adults. The relatively small number of trials and the varying doses, duration, and study designs limit the application of the findings, however.

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