Fish oil or omega 3 fatty acid supplements can prevent heart attacks finds study

A couple of clinical trials from Harvard researchers have shown that regular consumption of fish or fish oil supplements can reduce the risk of getting heart attacks significantly.

Omega 3 fatty acids contained in fish oils have been known to benefit both people with a healthy heart as well as those with heart disease who are at a greater risk of getting heart attacks or strokes say the researchers.

Sources of omega 3 fatty acids: flaxseeds, avocado, oil capsules and flaxseed oil. Image Credit: Lecic / Shutterstock
Sources of omega 3 fatty acids: flaxseeds, avocado, oil capsules and flaxseed oil. Image Credit: Lecic / Shutterstock

The clinical trial called Vitamin D and Omega-3 Trial (VITAL) showed that people who were taking a fish oil supplement were less likely to get a heart attack especially if they were black or did not take fish regularly. The other trial called Reduction of Cardiovascular Events with Icosapent Ethyl Intervention Trial (REDUCE-IT). Found that taking a purified form of omega-3 fatty acid supplement can reduce the risk of death due to heart disease and heart attacks or stroke. This was especially true for people who had heart risk factors such as atherosclerosis or hardened arteries.

Omega 3 fatty acids are abundantly found in sardines, tuna, salmons and sea fish. They are beneficial for heart health as seen in the studies said Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, and lead researcher for the VITAL trial. She said, “We're not recommending that everyone in the world begin taking fish oil supplements. In terms of the omega 3s, the best thing to do is to try to have more dietary fish... If people aren't going to eat fish, there really may be some benefits from taking a fish oil supplement. We recommend they discuss that with their health care provider.”

Both of the study results were presented on Saturday at the American Heart Association's 2018 Scientific Sessions in Chicago and were published in the latest issue of the journal New England Journal of Medicine.

The VITAL Trial

For this trial around 26000 American men and women aged 50 years or older with no history of heart disease were included. They were divided into three groups randomly and asked to take either 1 gram of fish oil or 2,000 International Units of vitamin D or a placebo pill daily. Results showed that those on the fish oil supplements had a 28 percent lowered risk of heart attacks over the five year follow up. Stroke or cancer risk was unaltered with the supplements. The population consuming fewer amounts of dietary fish also had a 19 percent reduction in major heart disease or cardiovascular events and a 40 percent reduction in heart attacks. African American participants were benefited more with the supplements with a 77 percent heart attack risk reduction, write the researchers. Mason explained that heart disease risk was greater among African Americans than for Caucasians and other races. Further vitamin D supplements did not reduce heart disease risk but reduced risk of cancer deaths by 25 percent.

The REDUCE-IT Trial

In this trial pure and stable form of the omega-3 fatty acid known as EPA was tested. A supplement called icosapent ethyl (manufactured and sold as Vascepa by Amarin Corp) is usually prescribed in individuals with raised triglycerides.

For this study the team included over 8000 participants who were already taking statins for cholesterol control. Many of these individuals had already had a heart attack or a stroke in their past. Atherosclerosis or hardened arteries was seen in around 70 percent cases and the other had either diabetes or another heart disease risk factor. They were all given either the supplement or placebo.

Results showed that those patients who were on icosapent ethyl had a 20 percent reduction of the risk of heart related event causing death and a 31 percent reduction in heart attack risk. Stroke risk fell by 28 percent compared to those taking placebo.

Dr. Deepak Bhatt, executive director of interventional cardiovascular programs at Brigham and Women's Hospital, said in a statement, “The REDUCE-IT trial sets a new standard of care for patients who have elevated triglycerides and are at increased cardiovascular risk despite statin therapy. This may be the biggest development in cardiovascular prevention since statins.”

Mason warned against taking any of the supplements without medical advice.

Ananya Mandal

Written by

Ananya Mandal

Ananya is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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