Omega-3s Help Prevent Heart Attack and Stroke
But what if you have already survived a heart attack - will omega-3 fatty acids still protect you against sudden death related to heart disease? According to a large international study, the answer is yes, although the protective benefit is not as great as it is with men who have no previous history of heart disease.6 Regardless, clinical trials employing omega-3 fatty acid supplementation or increased coldwater fish intake provide compelling evidence that increased consumption of omega-3 fatty acids reduces the occurrence of nonfatal and fatal heart attacks, and also reduces the risk of stroke
Omega-3s Support Cardiovascular Health
While the benefits of DHA and other omega-3 fatty acids for cognitive development and other aspects of brain function are impressive, their role in supporting good cardiovascular health has received even more press lately. Omega-3 fatty acids from coldwater fish are associated with several benefits to cardiovascular health:
· Improving lipid profiles by reducing serum triglyceride levels
· Increasing the HDL/LDL ratio (the ratio of "good cholesterol" to "bad cholesterol")
· Stabilizing heart rhythm (by inhibiting cardiac arrhythmias)
· Inhibiting platelet aggregation (thereby reducing the risk of thrombosis)
· Reducing the risk of fatal heart attacks
Research on this topic, published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine, has revealed that men with the highest serum levels of omega-3 fatty acids had a reduced risk of sudden death from heart disease.5 Importantly, these men were all healthy at the beginning of the study and had no previous history of heart disease.
Using the data gathered over the 17-year period of the study, the researchers divided the men into four equal-sized groups, called quartiles, based on their omega-3 fatty acid levels. The men in the highest quartile (highest omega-3 levels) had an 81% lower risk of sudden death than those in the lowest quartile, and the men in the second-highest quartile had a 72% lower risk. Thus, for men with no evidence of prior cardiovascular disease, the message is clear: high omega-3 levels dramatically decrease the risk of sudden death from heart disease.
DHA Offers a Plethora of Health Benefits
The research on omega-3 fatty acids, and DHA in particular, is impressive. In addition to improving brain and heart function, there is evidence that DHA can reduce the symptoms of cancer and of inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis (inflammation of joint tissue), asthma (caused in part by inflammation of bronchial air passages), and Crohn's disease (chronic inflammation of the intestinal wall).3 It is speculated that DHA may be able to moderate the production of inflammation-producing compounds and thus decrease the incidence of inflammation that leads to these debilitating diseases.
DHA has the potential to improve a number of serious health problems that afflict Americans. Our diets, however, are typically deficient in fish that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, so we don't consume very much of these health-promoting compounds; in fact, we ingest only about 0.1-0.2 gram of omega-3 fatty acids daily, on average.8 This is significantly less than the recommended amount, which can be obtained by eating two to three servings of coldwater fish per week. For most people, however, that is an unreliable and expensive way to get their omega-3 fatty acids. Supplementation is much more reliable and convenient for those who seek DHA as a means to improve their cognitive function, heart health, mood, and more.
1. Kalmijn S et al. Polyunsaturated fatty acids, antioxidants, and cognitive function in very old men. Am J Epidemiol 1997;145:33-41.
2. Conquer JA et al. Fatty acid analysis of blood plasma of patients with Alzheimer's disease, other types of dementia, and cognitive impairment. Lipids 2000;35:1305-12.
3. Horrocks LA, Yeo YK. Health benefits of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Pharmacol Res 1999;40:211-25.
4. Williams C et al. Stereoacuity at age 3.5 y in children born full-term is associated with prenatal and postnatal dietary factors: a report from a population-based cohort study. Am J Clin Nutr 2001;73:316-22.
5. Albert CM et al. Blood levels of long-chain n-3 fatty acids and the risk of sudden death. New Engl J Med 2002;346:1113-8.
6. GISSI-Prevenzione Investigators (Gruppo Italiano per lo Studio della Sopravivenze nell-Infarto Miocardico). Dietary supplementation with n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and vitamin E after myocardial infarction: results of the GISSI-Prevenzione trial. Lancet 1999;354:447-55.
7. Burr ML et al. Effects of changes in fat, fish, and fibre intakes on death and myocardial reinfarction: diet and reinfarction trial. Lancet 1989;2:757-61.
8. Kris-Etherton PM et al. Polyunsaturated fatty acids in the food chain in the United States. Am J Clin Nutr 2000;71 (Suppl):179-88S.
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