by Craig Weatherby

As we note in today's companion article, February 2nd is National Wear Red Day: a women's heart disease awareness campaign (see “Women's Heart Risks Form Focus of 'Wear Red' Day”).

Women's high risk of heart disease is often overlooked, but far outweighs the threat of breast and other cancers.

Fortunately, the results of a study from Finland support and expand the benefits of fish oil for preventing the progression of cardiovascular disease (CVD) in women.

Three years ago, the same Finnish researchers collaborated with Harvard scientists on a similar study in post-menopausal women, which came to this conclusion: “Consumption of fish is associated with a significantly reduced progression of coronary artery atherosclerosis in women with coronary artery disease.” (Erkkila AT et al 2004)

The new findings serve to support those results and expand a bit on the effects of three specific omega-3s found in fish and plant foods.

New study affirms value of fish to female heart patients

Researchers at Finland's University of Kuopio recruited 228 women diagnosed with coronary artery disease (CAD): a common form of cardiovascular disease (Erkkila AT et al 2007).

They subjected the women to coronary angiography, in which a catheter is inserted into a blood vessel in the groin or arm and threaded into the heart to take X-ray pictures of its blood vessels or chambers.

Each woman was given coronary angiography at the start of the study and again at its end a little more than three years later.

The researchers also measured the women's blood levels of DHA -- one of the two key omega-3s in fish oil – and triglycerides, high levels of which are a key risk factor for cardiovascular disease and heart-related deaths.

The Finns also recorded the number of new artery lesions, and the extent to which atherosclerosis had progressed during the three-year-plus period of the study, as measured by narrowing of the coronary artery.

Compared with women who had below-average blood levels of omega-3 DHA, the women with above-average DHA levels showed three key benefits:

  • Their atherosclerosis (arterial plaque build-up) had progressed less.

  • They had lower blood levels of triglycerides.

  • Their arteries displayed fewer new arterial lesions.

Surprisingly, none of these benefits was associated with higher blood levels of EPA – the other key omega-3 in fish oilor higher blood levels of ALA: the short-chain omega-3 concentrated in walnuts, flaxseeds, and dark, leafy greens.

Nonetheless, many prior studies have indicated that both of these two other omega-3s improve aspects of cardiovascular health.


  • Erkkila AT, Matthan NR, Herrington DM, Lichtenstein AH. Higher plasma docosahexaenoic acid is associated with reduced progression of coronary atherosclerosis in women with CAD. J Lipid Res. 2006 Dec;47(12):2814-9. Epub 2006 Sep 18.
  • Erkkila AT, Lichtenstein AH, Mozaffarian D, Herrington DM. Fish intake is associated with a reduced progression of coronary artery atherosclerosis in postmenopausal women with coronary artery disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004 Sep;80(3):626-32.
  • Erkkila AT, Herrington DM, Mozaffarian D, Lichtenstein AH. Cereal fiber and whole-grain intake are associated with reduced progression of coronary-artery atherosclerosis in postmenopausal women with coronary artery disease. Am Heart J. 2005 Jul;150(1):94-101.
  • Erkkila AT, Lehto S, Pyorala K, Uusitupa MI. n-3 Fatty acids and 5-y risks of death and cardiovascular disease events in patients with coronary artery disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003 Jul;78(1):65-71.