Do Omega-3 Fatty Acids Really Help Your Heart?

By Amir Khan on September 13, 2012 9:26 AM EDT

Fish Oil
Omega-3 fatty acids, such as the kind seen in salmon, sardines and fish oil pills, have been long touted for their heart-healthy benefits, but do they actually work? According to a new study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, they don't. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Omega-3 fatty acids, such as the kind seen in salmon, sardines and fish oil pills, have been long touted for their heart-healthy benefits, but do they actually work? According to a new study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, they don't.

Researchers analyzed several studies, totaling 68,000 patients, and found that omega-3 fatty acids had no impact on overall death rate, death from heart attacks or deaths from other forms of heart disease and stroke.

"Overall, omega-3...supplementation was not associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality, cardiac death, sudden death, myocardial infarction, or stroke based on relative and absolute measures of association," the researchers, led by Mosef Elisef, from the University Hospital of Ioannina in Greece, wrote in the study.

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However, the truth is cloudy, researchers said. Several previous studies have shown the fatty acid to reduce the risk of a cardiovascular event by up to 15 percent. In addition, the American Heart Association recommends a regimen of fish oil.

"Currently, American Heart Association Guidelines provide a recommendation that fish oil supplementation may be considered in individuals with cardiovascular disease," said Dr. Gregg Fonarow, a spokesman for the American Heart Association and a professor of cardiology at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the study, told HealthDay.

Duffy MacKay, vice president for Scientific and Regulatory Affairs at the Council for Responsible Nutrition in Washington, D.C., told HealthDay that it's important to put the findings in context, and said it's also likely that people who use fish oil and eat more fish have are healthier overall, which could explain the previously seen reductions in cardiovascular events.

"This has no implications and doesn't change the importance of insuring adequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids through diet or supplements," he said. "We need to moderate our expectations; nutrients are not drugs, so the impact is much more moderate." 

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