Omega-3s may lower risk of fatal heart attacks by 10 percent

June 28, 2016 Providence Health Team

Omega-3 fatty acids, the kind contained in salmon, anchovies, leafy vegetables and other foods, appear to be associated with a reduced risk of fatal heart attacks, according to new research.

An examination of 19 previous studies from 16 countries found that people with biomarkers of plant- and seafood-based omega-3 fatty acids were about 10 percent less likely to suffer a fatal heart attack.

“Consumption of ω-3–rich foods should be encouraged,” the authors said, referring to omega-3 acids.

The association didn’t seem to hold for non-fatal heart attacks, suggesting a more specific link related to death, said officials from Tufts University, where senior author Dariush Mozaffarian, M.D., is dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. The study was recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

What the study revealed

Of the 45,637 people included in the 19 studies, 7,973 suffered their first attacks over time. Of those, 2,781 died.

In the key finding, researchers found that people with higher concentrations of omega-3s in their bodies were about 10 percent less likely to suffer a lethal heart attack.

“Our results lend support to the importance of fish and omega-3 consumption as part of a healthy diet," said Dr. Mozaffarian.

The study, conducted under the umbrella of the Fatty acids and Outcomes Research Consortium, provided “the most comprehensive picture to date of how omega-3s may influence heart disease,” said coauthor Liana Del Gobbo, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Where to get omega-3 fatty acids

A good source of omega-3 is darker, fattier cold-water fish, rather than light fish like tilapia or shrimp. Experts say high levels of omega-3 are found in the following fish:

  • Wild Atlantic and Pacific herring
  • Farmed Atlantic salmon
  • Wild king salmon
  • Wild Pacific and jack mackerel
  • Wild tuna (use caution with mercury content)

And vegetable sources:

  • Fresh basil
  • Dried oregano
  • Cooked Chinese broccoli
  • Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil
  • Dry chia seeds

Other sources of omega-3s include leafy vegetables and walnuts. Grass-fed meats, eggs and dairy are also better than their corn-fed counterparts. Many people also take omega-3 supplements such as fish oil pills.

Omega-3 fatty acids can reduce arrhythmias, lower “bad” cholesterol and blood pressure as well as reduce the risk of fatal heart attacks. You can read a discussion of these benefits by Providence dietitian Haley Hughes, as well as her suggestions about which foods provide significant levels of omega-3s. To learn more, you can also read a discussion about how to get the correct balance of omega-3s and omega-6 fatty acids, which perform different functions in the body.

Not everyone should necessarily take omega-3 supplements, experts say. Specifically, fish oil supplements may interact with blood thinners, diabetes medications, cyclosporine and other medications. Before taking any new supplement, it’s a good idea to discuss it with your health care provider.

Further reading

You can read the Tufts University press release about the study here. You can read a primer on omega-3 fatty acids published by the University of Maryland Medical Center here. And the National Institutes of Health published an in-depth examination on omega-3 supplements.

Find a provider

If you have questions about your diet or your risk for a heart attack, talk with your health care provider. Need a health care provider? You can find a Providence provider here.

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