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Fish, Soy Oil Supplements May Cut Heart Death

Improved Heart Function Seen in Small Study
By
WebMD Health News

April 11, 2005 -- Taking supplements of fish oil or soy oil may help older people avoid sudden heart death.

Chalk it up to omega-3 fatty acids,omega-3 fatty acids, researchers report in the April issue of Chest. Omega-3 fatty acids have been studied for their effects on heart health, depression, and arthritis.

This time, increased heart rate variability -- a marker of the changes in time intervals between heartbeats -- was noted in a small group of patients who tried fish oil or soy oil supplements for a brief time. Increased heart rate variability has been linked to a lower risk of sudden heart death.

Heart Hazards, Heart Helpers

Of course, heart health isn't just about popping a pill.

Exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, reducing stress, and getting enough sleep are also important, says Holguin, an assistant professor at Emory University's medical school.

Heart disease is a leading cause of death among U.S. men and women. About 60% of all heart deaths happen suddenly, says Holguin's study.

Hearts need all the help they can get. Every day, the average heart beats 100,000 times and pumps about 2,000 gallons of blood. In a 70-year lifetime, an average human heart beats more than 2.5 billion times, says the American Heart Association (AHA).

Artery-clogging food, smoking, unchecked stress, and inactive lifestyles make the heart's job a lot harder. Seek emergency medical treatment at the first sign of trouble. A doctor can tell you your risk level.

In a news release, Holguin says people may particularly benefit from fish oil or soy oil pills if they have heart disease or are at increased risk for it with conditions such as:

  • High cholesterol
  • Advanced age
  • High blood pressure
  • A history of smoking
  • A family history of heart disease
  • Diabetes

Holguin's study only included people at least 60 years old. Most rarely ate fish. It's not clear if the same results apply to younger people and those who consume more omega-3 fatty acids from foods.

Benefits From Both Pills

Participants were 52 nursing home residents. None had heart pacemakers or irregular heartbeats.

First, their heart rates were monitored for two months. Next, participants were randomly assigned to take fish oil supplements or soy oil pills (2 grams daily for both groups) for 11 weeks.

Every other day, their heart beats were monitored.

Both groups significantly increased their heart rate variability while taking the supplements. Greater heart rate variability reduces the risk of dangerous irregular heart beats or sudden death.

Fish Oil Worked Faster

Improvement came quicker and was stronger for the fish oil group. The heart rate variability for people in that group increased after two-and-a-half weeks.

Heart function took longer to improve significantly for those taking the soy oil pills. Their gains didn't quite match those of the fish oil group.

Both supplements were well tolerated, says the study. Side effects were mild. Belching was reported by 41% of the fish oil group compared with 16% of the soy oil group. Nausea affected 2% of the fish oil takers and 8% of those taking soy oil supplements.

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