After menopause bone density begins to decrease at a more rapid rate than before menopause. Decreased bone density puts women at risk of developing hip fractures as their bones become more fragile and lose their ability to withstand falls or minor accidents. Reducing the risk of hip fracture becomes a critical goal for postmenopausal women.

A recent study published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research analyzed omega-3 levels in 800 women, half with bone fractures and half without. They analyzed red blood cell membrane levels of omega-3 fatty acids—the researchers carefully considered study design by choosing this important marker. “One thing that was critically important was that we didn’t use self-report of food intake, because there can be errors with that,” stated Rebecca Jackson, lead author. “We looked directly at the exposure of the bone cell to the fatty acids, which is at the red blood cell level. Red blood cells also give an indication of long-term exposure to these fatty acids, which we took into account in looking for a preventive effect.”

Women with higher levels of total omega-3 fatty acids, and higher levels of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), were at lowest risk of hip fracture while women with the highest ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids had almost twice the risk of hip fractures compared to women with the lowest ratio. A high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio means that the individual has a high intake of omega-6 and a low intake of omega-3 fatty acids (read: is consuming the Standard American Diet (SAD).

“Though it’s premature to make a nutrition recommendation based on this work, I do think this study adds a little more strength to current recommendations to include more omega-3s in the diet in the form of fish, and suggests that plant sources of omega-3 [such as flax, chia, and walnuts] may be just as important for preventing hip fractures in women,” noted Jackson.

This study is an excellent example of the total-body effects of omega-3 oils. While more studies will help determine whether the high omega-3 levels did, indeed, cause the preventive effect, I would be surprised if they found otherwise. At any rate, increasing omega-3 levels in red blood cell membranes is known to have many protective effects. The Omega-3 Index from Omega Quant is an easy finger prick test that detects these levels.