CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- Researchers are looking into how certain healthy fats may slow the progression of lung scarring.

University of Virginia pulmonary researchers say certain fats found in nuts and fish may impact such potentially deadly scarring, which is known as pulmonary fibrosis.

According to a release, slowing this progression could delay the need for lung transplants.

Specifically, the researchers looked into an association between blood plasma levels of omega-3 fatty acids, a type of heart-healthy fats people can find in food like salmon and flaxseeds, and pulmonary fibrosis progression.

They found that higher levels of omega-3 were associated with better lung function, resulting in longer transplant-free survival rates.

While they say more research into this topic is necessary, these findings do warrant clinical trials to see if treatments raising omega-3 levels could be a useful tool to improve outcomes for patients with pulmonary fibrosis and other chronic lung conditions.

“We found that higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the blood, which reflects several weeks of dietary intake, were linked to better lung function and longer survival,” said researcher John Kim, MD, a pulmonary and critical care expert at UVA Health and the UVA School of Medicine. “Our findings suggest omega-3 fatty acids might be a targetable risk factor in pulmonary fibrosis.”

Previous studies have already found links between omega-3 fatty acids and health benefits, such as lowering the risk of heart disease, stroke-causing blood clots, and dementia.

In this study, researchers wanted to see if these fatty acids might play a role in a condition called interstitial lung disease, a group of chronic lung diseases that can lead to pulmonary fibrosis.

Pulmonary fibrosis is a growing problem around the world because it is an irreversible condition that causes the lungs to lose the ability to exchange gases properly.

When the lungs cannot exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide, patients can experience shortness of breath, weakness, and an inability to exercise as well as other symptoms.

The release says the researchers looked at data on hundreds of patients listed on the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation Registry.

They also reviewed information on interstitial lung disease patients at UVA Health and the University of Chicago volunteered.

Most of these patients were men because pulmonary fibrosis is more common in men than it is in women.

Additionally, most of the patients have “idiopathic” pulmonary fibrosis, which is one of the conditions that falls under the banner of interstitial lung disease.

The researchers found that those patients with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their bloodstream also had better carbon dioxide exchange rates and survived longer without needing a transplant.

There was also little variation in these results regardless of smoking history or patient history of cardiovascular disease.

Further mechanistic study may lead to greater insights into this protective benefit and determine if supplements or dietary changes could improve patient outcomes.

“We need further research to determine if there are specific omega-3 fatty acids that may be beneficial and, if so, what are their underlying mechanisms,” Kim said. “Similar to other chronic diseases, we hope to determine whether nutrition-related interventions can have a positive impact on pulmonary fibrosis.” 

These findings have been published in the scientific journal Chest.