Swiss Study Uncovers Benefits of Lesser-Known Omega-3 in Protecting Against Heart and Artery Deterioration

Plant-based omega-3 fatty acid — alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) — prevents heart dysfunction, reduces cardiac scarring, and improves artery elasticity in aged mice.

By Daniel R. Miranda, Ph.D.

Key Points:

  • ALA prevents the age-related decline in the heartbeat’s relaxation phase (diastolic phase). 
  • Cardiac tissue damage and scarring are scaled down by ALA in aged mice. 
  • Stiffness of the largest artery (aorta) is reduced by ALA in aged mice.

While many of us are aware of omega-3’s age-delaying effects on the brain, less is known about which of these fatty acids best protects the heart. Now, the latest research points to ALA, found in plant-based foods like chia seeds and flaxseeds, for its preventative effects on heart aging.

Researchers from the University of Zurich report in Vascular Pharmacology that ALA supplementation prevents aging-related cardiac diastolic and vascular dysfunction. Namely, Saravi and colleagues show that ALA prevents diastolic dysfunction, reduces cardiac scarring, and improves blood vessel elasticity, which all benefit the cardiovascular system. These findings suggest that ALA should be a welcomed addition to everyone’s omega-3 stack.

Plant-Based Omega-3 Protects Against Cardiovascular Aging 

To study the effects of ALA on heart decline, Saravi and colleagues compared old (18-month-old) mice on a normal diet to old mice on a diet containing a large amount of ALA (7.3% by weight). These old mice were compared to young (6-month-old) mice. 

To assess diastolic heart function, the researchers measured blood flow rates and electrical activity from the heart. According to these measures, they found that diastolic function had dropped in old mice on a normal diet. However, mice fed a diet supplemented with ALA did not display the same drop in blood flow and electrical activity, suggesting prevention of diastolic heart dysfunction. 

(Saravi et al., 2023 | Vascular PharmacologyALA Prevents Diastolic Heart Dysfunction. Compared to young mice (gray), untreated old mice (red) mice display an increased E/A ratio (left) and reduced isovolumetric relaxation time (IVRT, right), indicating diastolic dysfunction. ALA supplementation prevented this dysfunction in old mice (green).  

Our heart has a hard time regenerating damaged tissue with age, leading to scarring called fibrosis. Saravi and colleagues found that compared to old mice on a normal diet, old mice supplemented with ALA had less fibrosis. These findings suggest that the plant-derived fatty acid ALA protects against the cardiac tissue damage that occurs with aging. 

(Saravi et al., 2023 | Vascular PharmacologyALA Reduces Cardiac Scarring. Compared to untreated old mice (red), mice supplemented with ALA (green) display less scarring in between the cells of the heart (Interstitial Fibrosis), indicating reduced cardiac damage.  

When we do push-ups our muscles need more oxygen and nutrients, which are delivered from our blood. To meet such demands, our arteries dilate to allow for higher volumes of blood to flow to muscles in need. However, with age, this dilation response can be disrupted by artery stiffening, making it more difficult for the heart to pump blood to organs in need of more oxygen and nutrients. 

To assess artery stiffness and dilation capacity, Saravi and colleagues examined the aorta, the largest artery in the body. They exposed the aorta to acetylcholine (Ach), a natural signaling molecule that tells our blood vessels to relax and dilate. With increasing doses of Ach, the Swiss researchers found that relaxation of the aorta from mice fed ALA was increased, suggesting improved artery elasticity and reduced stiffness. 

(Saravi et al., 2023 | Vascular PharmacologyALA Improves Artery Elasticity. Compared to untreated old mice (red), mice supplemented with ALA (green) display increased relaxation, a measure of blood vessel dilation and elasticity in response to acetylcholine (Ach). 

In both the heart and aorta, Saravi and colleagues found that ALA reduces markers of inflammation and oxidative stress. Inflammation and oxidative stress are hallmarks of aging, meaning they damage most tissues of the body. These findings suggest that ALA could exert its beneficial effects on cardiovascular aging by targeting these hallmarks. 

Consuming the Good Fats 

According to previous studies, omega-3 fatty acids benefit both the heart and brain. This includes EPA and DHA with ALA emerging as a cardioprotective fat. In general, polyunsaturated fats like omega-3s and omega-6s are considered healthy fats when compared to saturated fat, which is mostly found in animal-based foods. While supplementing with omega-3s, including EPA, DHA, and ALA is an option, the benefits of these healthy fats may also be garnered by consuming more fatty fish (e.g. salmon, herring, sardines) for the DHA and EPA and certain seeds and nuts (e.g. flaxseeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts) for the ALA. 

This study was partially funded by Abbott, Amgen, AstraZeneca, Boehringer Ingelheim, Daichi-Sankyo, Novartis, Sanofi, Servier and Vifor.

Model & Dosage

Model: 6-month-old C57BL/6J mice up to 18-months-old (12-month intervention)

Dosage: 7.3% (of total grams of food) alpha linolenic acid (ALA) in food 


Saravi SSS, Bonetti NR, Vukolic A, Vdovenko D, Lee P, Liberale L, Basso C, Rizzo S, Akhmedov A, Lüscher TF, Camici GG, Beer JH. Long-term dietary n3 fatty acid prevents aging-related cardiac diastolic and vascular dysfunction. Vascul Pharmacol. 2023 Apr 25:107175. doi: 10.1016/j.vph.2023.107175. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 37105373.

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