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Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD
Aug. 3, 2009 -- A healthy dose of omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA and EPA not only prevents heart disease in healthy people, it also reduces the risk of heart attack in people with existing heart disease, according to a new study. That finding has researchers recommending people add a daily dose of omega-3 fatty acids to their diet.
Based on a review of several large studies involving more than 40,000 people, researchers say the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids to heart health are clear and merit taking action to prevent unnecessary deaths from heart disease.
The body doesn't produce fatty acids, so researchers recommend healthy people consume 500 milligrams daily of EPA plus DHA, and people with known heart disease or heart failure should aim for nearly twice that amount (at least 800 to 1,000 milligrams daily).
"There are clear health and heart benefits associated with increasing one's intake of foods that are rich in Omega-3s, including oily fish like salmon, sardines, trout, herring, and oysters" researcher Carl Lavie, MD, medical director of cardiac rehabilitation and prevention at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans, says in a news release. "Patients should talk with their doctors about whether a fish oil supplement is needed to get the right amount and, in turn, benefit from the associated cardiovascular protection."
DHA and EPA Help Heart
The study, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, reviewed the findings of four studies comparing the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in heart disease prevention over the past 30 years.
The results showed that omega-3 fatty acids' strongest protective effect appears to be in people with established heart disease after a heart attack. In these people, a daily dose of DHA and EPA is associated with a 30% reduction in the risk of heart-related death.
But researchers say healthy people can also benefit from including omega-3s in their diet. Research shows a diet rich in omega-3s can also reduce the risk of hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia), heart attack, sudden cardiac death, and heart failure.
Most of the evidence for the benefits of fish oil comes from the use of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eiosapentaenoic acid), which are the long-chain fatty acids in the omega-3 family.
Lavie says EPA and DHA work by getting into the membranes of cells and by doing so may help improve the heart's electrical activity, muscle tone, plaque stabilization, blood pressure, and other aspects of heart health.
The study also showed that there was a smaller benefit of omega-3 fatty acids in preventing 9% of heart failure deaths in people with heart failure who took omega-3 supplements. Given heart failure patients' grave prognosis, Lavie says this is impressive.
"If we translate this finding, it means that we only need to treat 56 patients for four years to prevent one death," Lavie says. "And we are talking about a very safe and relatively inexpensive therapy."
SOURCES: Lavie, C. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, Aug. 11, 2009; vol 54: pp 585-594. News release, American College of Cardiology.
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