Research indicates heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids can lower the risk of heart attacks, strokes and more 05/12/2020
Omega-3 fatty acid supplements could help tens of thousands of Americans avoid painful, and sometimes deadly, heart attacks and strokes every year, according to a new study.
A team of scientists found that patients who were given a supplement containing EPA, an omega-3 in fish oil, saw significantly lower chances of having a heart attack or other type of cardiovascular disease over the course of an approximately five-year study (Wong ND 2020). Extrapolating that data to the U.S. population at large, the study authors showed that some 70,000 people a year could be spared from cardiovascular disease.
This finding adds to the already strong evidence for the heart-health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. It’s also another sign that supplementing our diets with omega-3s, which we can’t make enough of on our own, is an easy step toward safeguarding our health.
Can Omega-3s Save Lives?
For this latest research, scientists at the University of California, Irvine, re-examined existing data from a previous long-term study of omega-3s and heart health. That study, called REDUCE-IT, followed over 8,000 people who had an elevated risk of heart disease and were treating it with statins, a common class of drugs that improves cardiovascular health (Bhatt DL 2019). The participants were given either a placebo or four grams daily of a purified form of EPA called icosapent ethyl. Then, researchers followed them for about five years.
(We’ve previously covered the results of the REDUCE-IT study. See “Omega-3s’ Heart Value Vindicated in Long, Large Clinical Trial”)
By the end of the trial, those taking the omega-3 supplement suffered 25 percent fewer dangerous cardiovascular events, like heart attacks and strokes, compared to the participants on the placebo. When the UC Irvine researchers applied those numbers to the U.S. as a whole, they discovered this could translate to 70,000 fewer heart attacks, strokes and other dangerous cardiovascular problems.
"When you consider that for every 21 patients treated with icosapent ethyl you can spare a cardiovascular event, you begin to see the implications of our results," said Nathan D. Wong, director of the Heart Disease Prevention Program in the Division of Cardiology at the UC Irvine School of Medicine, in a media release.
The study was recently presented virtually at the American College of Cardiology’s 2020 meeting. An abstract was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
How to be Heart-Healthy
Heart disease has been the leading cause of death in the U.S. in recent years. It costs the country more than $200 billion annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But, many risk factors for heart disease are entirely within our control.
We can lower our risk by eating healthy, exercising and staying away from smoking. Diets high in things like trans fats can tip our bodies into an unhealthy state where increased levels of triglycerides raise risk of death (Langsted A 2010). But, we can use our diets to help protect our health, as well.
When we eat more calories than we need, our bodies store that extra energy as triglycerides — a kind of lipid, or fat. Too much fat is bad for us, and not just because it gets turned into extra pounds. Triglycerides circulating in the bloodstream are often a sign of an elevated risk for cardiovascular disease (Talayero BG 2011).
Doctors often turn to statins as the first line of defense against triglycerides, but they’re not always totally effective. So, omega-3s like EPA can offer another option for improving heart health. Studies show they’re effective at lowering levels of triglycerides in our bloodstream (Weber P 2000). And, as the REDUCE-IT data shows, EPA can lower triglyceride levels even when patients are already on a statin but haven’t improved their markers for cardiovascular health.
Fish Oil for a Healthy Diet
While the prescription drug form of EPA that was used in the trial can be expensive — Drugs.com puts a month’s supply, or 240 pills, at a little over $400 — there are other ways to add this heart-guarding compound to your diet. Fish are a rich natural source of omega-3s like EPA, whether that’s from a fresh, wild-caught salmon fillet or fish oil supplements.
And natural fish oil also contains a second helpful omega-3 fatty acid known as DHA. Like EPA, the compound can’t be made in sufficient quantities in our bodies, so we need to get it from our diets. DHA has been shown to help brain and eye health, and it affects our cardiovascular health, too. Some studies, in fact, show that DHA can help lower triglyceride levels even more than EPA does (Allaire J 2016).
The gains don’t stop there. Both DHA and EPA also help our bodies lower cholesterol levels, another key factor in heart health. Omega-3s can help by raising levels of HDL, the “good” cholesterol that’s associated with lower heart disease risk.
The triglyceride-fighting abilities of omega-3s are a big part of why they’re so beneficial to our health. Supplementing diets with both compounds could help protect against heart disease, in addition to the benefits to our brains, eyes and more. And, while 70,000 fewer heart attacks might sound like a grand goal, there’s always room to improve our own heart health — one step at a time.
Allaire J, Couture P, Leclerc M, et al. A randomized, crossover, head-to-head comparison of eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid supplementation to reduce inflammation markers in men and women: the Comparing EPA to DHA (ComparED) Study. The American journal of clinical nutrition. 2016;104(2):280-287. doi:10.3945/ajcn.116.131896
Bhatt DL, Steg PG, Miller M, et al. Cardiovascular Risk Reduction with Icosapent Ethyl for Hypertriglyceridemia. New England Journal of Medicine. 2019;380(1):11-22. doi:10.1056/nejmoa1812792
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Weber P, Raederstorff D. Triglyceride-lowering effect of omega-3 LC-polyunsaturated fatty acids--a review. Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Diseases. 2000 Feb;10(1):28-37.
Wong ND, Fan W, Toth P, Granowitz C, Philip S. REDUCE-IT Eligibility and Preventable First and Total Cardiovascular Events in the U.S. Population: An Analysis of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 2020;75(11):1954. doi:10.1016/s0735-1097(20)32581-x