A recent New York Times
blog post typifies a sad reality: negative news sells, and nuance doesn't.
Anahad O'Connor's misleading post – titled "Fish Oil Claims Not Supported by Research” – appeared in the Times
' March 30 Well blog.
true that some
– though by no means all – clinical trials
have not found clear evidence that omega-3 fish oils reduce the risk of
Nor have all
clinical trials found that fish oil
reduces the risk of sudden cardiac death … the heart-rhythm-related
event that accounts for half of all cardiac deaths.
trials – including some of the largest and best-designed – have clearly affirmed that omega-3 fish oil has heart-protective powers.
And most non-clinical studies link fishy diets to better heart health, as we report below (see "Evidence from lab and epidemiological studies strongly supports fish").
For that and other reasons, the headline on the Times
' blog post is clearly and irresponsibly wrong.
Sadly, the author – and some of the doctors he quoted – paint a highly misleading picture of the total body of clinical and other evidence.New York Times blog post distorted the evidence
' post implied that the early, positive clinical trials are outweighed by negative ones published more recently.
reality, the value of omega-3 fish oil for heart health is backed by very substantial
clinical evidence, whose positive findings are not outweighed by the negative outcomes of other trials.
explains why health agencies worldwide still recommend fish oil
strongly to people who don't eat much fish, or who need extra omega-3s
to help sick hearts.
For example, contrary to the Times
characterization, an evidence review by researchers at the Tufts
Medical Center came to a positive conclusion:
"Most trials reported that
fish oil significantly reduced all-cause mortality, myocardial
infarction [heart attack], cardiac and sudden death, or stroke.” (Wang C
et al. 2006)
That conclusion was later echoed by U.S.
researchers who analyzed 11 high-quality clinical trials:
supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids significantly reduced the risk
of cardiovascular deaths, sudden cardiac death, all-cause mortality, and
non-fatal cardiovascular events.” (Marik PE, Varon J et al. 2009)
recently, Harvard researchers affirmed the heart benefits of omega-3
"A large body of evidence from experimental, clinical, and
epidemiologic research has demonstrated the potential benefits of fish
oil on cardiovascular health.” (Hu FB, Manson JE 2012)Positive trials were downplayed by The New York Times
among the large, positive clinical trials that have persuaded health
authorities to endorse omega-3 fish oil supplements were two conducted
- GISSI-HF involved patients with congestive heart failure
- GISSI-Prevenzione involved people who'd suffered a heart attack (myocardial infarction)
Most of the 11,324 participants in the GISSI-Prevenzione trial were taking standard heart drugs, including statins. They took 1000mg of fish oil daily for one year, and were followed for three to five years.
The GISSI trials found that fish oil supplements further reduced patients' risks for heart failure, stroke, second heart attacks, and sudden
cardiac death triggered by irregular heart rhythms
(Marchioli R et al. 2001; Gissi-HF Investigators et al. 2008).
As the trial's lead authors wrote in the European Heart Journal
, "The results of GISSI-Prevenzione indicate that in patients who have had a myocardial infarction [heart attack], omega-3 supplements ... reduced long-term complications to a clinically important extent." (Marchioli R, Valagussa )
In fact, as they noted, the benefits of fish oil seen in the GISSI trial were comparable to those seen in a large clinical trial that tested a statin drug in heart patients, called the LIPID study.
opinion on omega-3 fish oil was also influenced by a large, five-year
Japanese trial called JELIS, which tested one of fish oil's two key
omega-3 fats, called EPA.
The JELIS trial tested omega-3 EPA as
an adjunct to statin drugs in 18,645 older women and men with coronary
artery disease and/or risk factors for it (Yokoyama M et al. 2003; Saito
Y et al. 2008).
The results showed that adding omega-3 EPA to
statin therapy cut the rate of major coronary events (heart attack,
stroke, death) by 19 percent, compared with the no-EPA control group,
which took only their usual cardiac drugs.
And more recently,
several controlled clinical trials showed that fish oil cut the risk of
heart attacks and sudden cardiac death significantly, versus placebo
For example, see Omega-3s Cut Heart Risks & Death Rates in Clinical Trial
As we reported there, 563 older Norwegian men who took fish oil for
three years were 47 percent less likely to die from any cause, and 11
percent less likely to suffer an adverse cardiovascular event (heart
attack, stroke, sudden cardiac death), compared to the placebo group.
Even when results are mixed, there are almost always positive findings, such as we reported in Does Fish Oil Really Help Hearts?
In that five-year trial among 12,513 people with cardiac risk factors,
fish oil didn't reduce risk much among the men assigned to take it ...
but the women who took fish oil were 18 percent less likely to die from
This largely positive record explains why
the American Heart Association and public health authorities worldwide
still recommend eating fish (especially fatty, omega-3-rich species like
tuna, salmon, and sardines) and/or taking fish oil supplements
routinely.Negative trials often suffer from shortcomings
Although some trials conducted since the GSSI and JELIS studies have found significant benefits from fish oil, some have not.
disappointing trials often suffered from limitations or confounding
factors that muddied the waters or led the researchers to erroneous
- Trial was small or short.
- Omega-3 doses were fairly low.
- Participants already had heart disease*.
- Analysis of results failed to account for participants' omega-6 intakes**.
- Participants were taking cardiac drugs (e.g., statins) proven to reduce heart risks.
Harvard researchers noted three years ago, most of the extant trials
have involved people already diagnosed with for cardiovascular disease –
hence at high risk for heart attacks and other adverse events – who
were already being treated with drugs such as statins (Hu FB, Manson JE
2012). This means that almost all of the clinical trials of omega-3 fish
oil supplements have put them to a very tough test … one that few (or
no) cardiac drugs would pass.
**Very few trials have taken into
account the amounts of competing omega-6 fats the participants were
consuming. When that's been done, it's been found that the high omega-6
intake typical of modern diets blunts the heart benefits of omega-3s
from fish oil supplements (see Heart Risks Raised by Omega-6 Excess
, Know Your Omega-3/6 Numbers
, and America's Sickening Omega Fats Imbalance
). Evidence from lab and epidemiological studies strongly supports fish
The American Heart Association (AHA) advises everyone to eat two servings of fish per week.
And the heart group advises people diagnosed with heart disease to take 1000mg of supplemental omega-3 fish oil daily.
Their advice stems partly from epidemiological studies that compared people's diets and health status.
Epidemiological studies cannot prove a cause-effect relationship ... but scientists give them more weight when the results of most such studies align, and enjoy supportive lab evidence.
Fish-source omega-3s enjoy ample lab evidence of heart benefits, and a healthy majority of epidemiological studies link fish-rich diets to lower risks for heart disease and its adverse outcomes.
(We recently reported on a study that persuasively linked Japan's low heart disease rates to its people's fish-heavy diet … see Do Fishy Diets Drive Japan's Superior Heart Health?
The adverse cardiac health outcomes apparently deterred by fish-rich diets include stroke, heart failure, sudden cardiac death ... and the subject of a new epidemiological study, acute coronary syndrome.
Acute coronary syndrome (ACS) is an umbrella term covering any circumstance that suddenly blocks or severely constricts the heart's blood supply.
The two most common forms of ACS are heart attacks and unstable angina, which can kill heart tissue in amounts ranging from a few cells to a whole section of the heart.
Now, a recent evidence review affirms abundant prior evidence that fishy diets help prevent heart attacks, unstable angina, and other forms of ACS.Canadian evidence review affirms the heart-guarding value of fish
Researchers from Canada's McGill University conducted a meta-analysis (critical review) of 19 epidemiological studies (Leung Yinko SS et al. 2014).
Each study they selected for the meta-analysis had looked for links between fish consumption and the risk for heart attack, unstable angina, or other forms of ACS.
The Canadian team selected the 19 best epidemiological studies, which included 11 prospective-cohort and 8 case-control studies.
These studies involved a total of 408,305 healthy middle-aged people aged 47 to 62 – slightly more women (53 percent) than men – with no prior history of heart attack or other form of ACS.
Like some prior evidence reviews, their analysis found that fish consumption reduced ACS risk in a "dose-dependent” manner:
- Four or more servings per week reduced ACS risk by 21 percent.
- Every 100-gram-per-week increase in fish consumption reduced ACS risk by five percent.
This link between higher fish intake and lower heart risk was seen only in the 11 prospective-cohort studies … but that category included the better studies among the 19 they reviewed.
Importantly, the analysis detected no gender or age differences, with the same levels of risk reduction seen in men and women of all ages in the range.Omega-3s: Many reasons to get plenty
Diets high in omega-3-rich seafood appear to enhance or maintain people's brain health, metabolic health, eye health, and immune health, and help ensure optimal child development.
And they may extend people's lifespans and "health spans” … see High Omega-3 Levels Boost Longevity
and Omega-3s' DNA-Telomere Effects vs. Heart Disease and Aging
You can see and browse our hundreds of reports on omega-3 studies in our news archive
... look for the list of omega-3 health topics under "Omega-3 Fatty Acids” at the top right side of the archive page.Sources
- American Heart Association (AHA). Acute Coronary Syndrome. Accessed at http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HeartAttack/ AboutHeartAttacks/Acute-Coronary-Syndrome_UCM_428752_Article.jsp
- Belin RJ, Greenland P, Martin L, et al. Fish intake and the risk of incident heart failure: the Women's Health Initiative. Circ Heart Fail. 2011;4:404-413.
- Bucher HC, Hengstler P, Schindler C, Meier G. N-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in coronary heart disease: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Am J Med. 2002 Mar;112(4):298-304.
- Casula M, Soranna D, Catapano AL, Corrao G. Long-term effect of high dose omega-3 fatty acid supplementation for secondary prevention of cardiovascular outcomes: A meta-analysis of randomized, placebo controlled trials [corrected]. Atheroscler Suppl. 2013 Aug;14(2):243-51. doi: 10.1016/S1567-5688(13)70005-9. Review. Erratum in: Atheroscler Suppl. 2014 Mar;233(1):122.
- Chen Q, Cheng LQ, Xiao TH, Zhang YX, Zhu M, Zhang R, Li K, Wang Y, Li Y. Effects of omega-3 fatty acid for sudden cardiac death prevention in patients with cardiovascular disease: a contemporary meta-analysis of randomized, controlled trials. Cardiovasc Drugs Ther. 2011 Jun;25(3):259-65. doi: 10.1007/s10557-011-6306-8.
- Chowdhury S, Ward H, Johnson L, Crowe F, Hu FB, Franco OH. Association between fish consumption, long chain omega 3 fatty acids, and risk of cerebrovascular disease: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ. 2012 Oct 30;345:e6698. doi: 10.1136/bmj.e6698. Review.
- Chowdhury R, Warnakula S, Kunutsor S, Crowe F, Ward HA, Johnson L, Franco OH, Butterworth AS, Forouhi NG, Thompson SG, Khaw KT, Mozaffarian D, Danesh J, Di Angelantonio E. Association of dietary, circulating, and supplement fatty acids with coronary risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Ann Intern Med. 2014 Mar 18;160(6):398-406. doi: 10.7326/M13-1788. Review. Erratum in: Ann Intern Med. 2014 May 6;160(9):658.
- Djoussé L, Akinkuolie AO, Wu JH, Ding EL, Gaziano JM. Fish consumption, omega-3 fatty acids and risk of heart failure: a meta-analysis. Clin Nutr. 2012;31:846-853.
- Enns JE, Yeganeh A, Zarychanski R, Abou-Setta AM, Friesen C, Zahradka P, Taylor CG. The impact of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation on the incidence of cardiovascular events and complications in peripheral arterial disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Cardiovasc Disord. 2014 May 31;14:70. doi: 10.1186/1471-2261-14-70. Review.
- He K, Song Y, Daviglus ML, Liu K, Van Horn L, Dyer AR, Goldbourt U, Greenland P. Fish consumption and incidence of stroke: a meta-analysis of cohort studies. Stroke. 2004 Jul;35(7):1538-42. Epub 2004 May 20.
- He K, Song Y, Daviglus ML, Liu K, Van Horn L, Dyer AR, Greenland P. Accumulated evidence on fish consumption and coronary heart disease mortality: a meta-analysis of cohort studies. Circulation. 2004 Jun 8;109(22):2705-11.
- Hu FB, Bronner L, Willett WC, Stampfer MJ, Rexrode KM, Albert CM, Hunter D, Manson JE. Fish and omega-3 fatty acid intake and risk of coronary heart disease in women. JAMA. 2002 Apr 10;287(14):1815-21.
- Iso H, Rexrode KM, Stampfer MJ, Manson JE, Colditz GA, Speizer FE, Hennekens CH, Willett WC. Intake of fish and omega-3 fatty acids and risk of stroke in women. JAMA. 2001 Jan 17;285(3):304-12.
- Khoueiry G, Abi Rafeh N, Sullivan E, Saiful F, Jaffery Z, Kenigsberg DN, Krishnan SC, Khanal S, Bekheit S, Kowalski M. Do omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids reduce risk of sudden cardiac death and ventricular arrhythmias? A meta-analysis of randomized trials. Heart Lung. 2013 Jul-Aug;42(4):251-6. doi: 10.1016/j.hrtlng.2013.03.006. Epub 2013 May 25.
- Kotwal S, Jun M, Sullivan D, Perkovic V, Neal B. Omega 3 Fatty acids and cardiovascular outcomes: systematic review and meta-analysis. Circ Cardiovasc Qual Outcomes. 2012 Nov;5(6):808-18. doi: 10.1161/CIRCOUTCOMES.112.966168. Epub 2012 Oct 30. Review. Kruse LG, Ogletree RL Jr. Omega-3 fatty acids and cardiovascular risk. J Miss State Med Assoc. 2013 Jun;54(6):156-7.
- Kwak SM, Myung SK, Lee YJ, Seo HG; Korean Meta-analysis Study Group. Efficacy of omega-3 fatty acid supplements (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid) in the secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease: a meta-analysis of randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials. Arch Intern Med. 2012 May 14;172(9):686-94. doi: 10.1001/archinternmed.2012.262. Review.
- Larsson SC, Orsini N. Fish consumption and the risk of stroke: a dose-response meta-analysis. Stroke. 2011 Dec;42(12):3621-3. doi: 10.1161/STROKEAHA.111.630319. Epub 2011 Sep 8. Leung Yinko SS, Stark KD, Thanassoulis G, Pilote L. Fish consumption and acute coronary syndrome: a meta-analysis. Am J Med. 2014 Sep;127(9):848-57.e2. doi: 10.1016/j.amjmed.2014.04.016. Epub 2014 May 4.
- Li YH, Zhou CH, Pei HJ, Zhou XL, Li LH, Wu YJ, Hui RT. Fish consumption and incidence of heart failure: a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Chin Med J (Engl). 2013 Mar;126(5):942-8. Marik PE, Varon J. Omega-3 dietary supplements and the risk of cardiovascular events: a systematic review. Clin Cardiol. 2009 Jul;32(7):365-72. doi: 10.1002/clc.20604. Review.
- The Long-Term Intervention with Pravastatin in Ischaemic Disease (LIPID) Study Group. Prevention of cardiovascular events and death with pravastatin in patients with coronary heart disease and a broad range of initial cholesterol levels. N Engl J Med 1998; 339: 1349–57.
- Marchioli R, Valagussa F. The results of the GISSI-Prevenzione trial in the general framework of secondary prevention. Eur Heart J. 2000 Jun;21(12):949-52. Review.
- Mozaffarian D, Lemaitre RN, Kuller LH, et al. Cardiac benefits of fish consumption may depend on the type of fish meal consumed: the Cardiovascular Health Study. Circulation. 2003;107:1372-1377.
- Mozaffarian D, Psaty BM, Rimm EB, et al. Fish intake and risk of incident atrial fibrillation. Circulation. 2004;110:368-373.
- Psota TL, Gebauer SK, Kris-Etherton P. Dietary omega-3 fatty acid intake and cardiovascular risk. Am J Cardiol. 2006 Aug 21;98(4A):3i-18i. Epub 2006 May 30. Review.
- Rizos EC, Ntzani EE, Bika E, Kostapanos MS, Elisaf MS. Association between omega-3 fatty acid supplementation and risk of major cardiovascular disease events: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA. 2012 Sep 12;308(10):1024-33. doi: 10.1001/2012.jama.11374. Review.
- Wang C, Harris WS, Chung M, Lichtenstein AH, Balk EM, Kupelnick B, Jordan HS, Lau J. n-3 Fatty acids from fish or fish-oil supplements, but not alpha-linolenic acid, benefit cardiovascular disease outcomes in primary- and secondary-prevention studies: a systematic review. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 Jul;84(1):5-17. Review.
- Wen YT, Dai JH, Gao Q. Effects of Omega-3 fatty acid on major cardiovascular events and mortality in patients with coronary heart disease: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2014 May;24(5):470-5. doi: 10.1016/j.numecd.2013.12.004. Epub 2013 Dec 25.
- Xun P, Qin B, Song Y, Nakamura Y, Kurth T, Yaemsiri S, Djousse L, He K. Fish consumption and risk of stroke and its subtypes: accumulative evidence from a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2012 Nov;66(11):1199-207. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2012.133. Epub 2012 Oct 3.
- Zhao YT, Chen Q, Sun YX, Li XB, Zhang P, Xu Y, Guo JH. Prevention of sudden cardiac death with omega-3 fatty acids in patients with coronary heart disease: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Ann Med. 2009;41(4):301-10. doi: 10.1080/07853890802698834.
- Zheng J, Huang T, Yu Y, Hu X, Yang B, Li D. Fish consumption and CHD mortality: an updated meta-analysis of seventeen cohort studies. Public Health Nutr. 2012 Apr;15(4):725-37. doi: 10.1017/S1368980011002254. Epub 2011 Sep 14.