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Not Eating Enough of This Nutrient May be as Deadly as Smoking, Says New Study

You may want to break out the flax seeds.

While there is no surefire way to extend your life, there are certain behaviors that will improve your chances of living longer as well as ones that can do the opposite.

It's no surprise that smoking fits into the latter category. While heart-healthy activities like exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet, and staying connected to the people around you can help to extend your life. Now, according to new research, not having enough of this nutrient in your diet could be shortening your life—turns out, having a low omega-3 index could shorten your life by almost five years. In other words, you might want to head to the seafood aisle and pick up some salmon.

RELATED: The Best Foods That Can Help Lower Your Risk of Heart Disease

For the study, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers looked at the omega-3 indexes (a measure of what percentage of someone's total fatty acids are omega-3 fatty acids) of more than 2,000 people and used this to assess their risk of death. Researchers found that, the higher the omega-3 index, the lower the risk.

omega 3 capsule

"The easiest way to say this is, all things being equal—and of course they never are—people with an omega-3 index in the highest 20% of the population lived about 4.7 years longer, or after age 65, than people with an omega-3 index in the lowest 20%," study co-author William S. Harris, PhD, FAHA told Eat This, Not That!

In a previous study, Harris added, "We found that being a smoker, versus not, shortened one's lifespan by about the same number of years as having a low (versus high) omega-3 index." He cautions that these findings don't mean that you can undo the damage done by smoking through fish oil supplements, it does further support existing research around omega-3 fatty acids and longevity.

So how can you apply this knowledge to your own health, you might ask? The study's first author, Michael I. McBurney, PhD, FCNS-SCN, FASN, has recommendations.

"Life does not come with guarantees, and changing one's omega-3 status does not automatically confer good health," he noted. Still, he suggests that you get your blood levels tested to see if you need more EPA and DHA in your diet. Once you've made the changes to your diet either through supplements or by eating foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, get retested 3-5 months later. He added, "Personalization of your omega-3 status is 1-2 tests away."

This kind of testing is available through a range of different providers, though it can be expensive. In the meantime, if you're not eating an omega-3 rich diet, it certainly wouldn't hurt to start.

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Clara Olshansky
Clara Olshansky (they/she) is a Brooklyn-based writer and comic whose web content has appeared in Food & Wine, Harper’s Magazine, Men's Health, and Reductress. Read more about Clara