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For Reducing Heart Disease Risk, Fish Oil Isn't Snake Oil

WebMD Health News

Aug. 8, 2000 -- Fish oil supplements can potentially significantly reduce the risk of heart disease in older women, according to a recent study published in the August issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Triglycerides are fat in the blood, like cholesterol. But unlike cholesterol, triglycerides have gotten little attention until recently. A study, however, has shown that high triglyceride levels are a risk factor for heart disease, but most research has been conducted in men. However, the author of this study cites research that suggests that, for those with high triglyceride levels, the risk of heart attack was greater in women than in men.

"The recent findings that [triglyceride] is a greater risk factor in women [than in] men really highlights the promise of this type of therapy," says lead author Ken D. Stark, who is currently a PhD candidate at the department of human biology and nutritional sciences at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

Stark and colleagues studied 35 postmenopausal women who ranged in age from 43 to 60 who had no history of heart disease. They had had their last period at least one year before the study started, and many took hormone replacement therapy. They received either fish oil supplements or placebo capsules. The women treated with the fish oil supplements had large decreases in their triglyceride levels than those treated with the placebo. This had the potential of reducing their risk for heart disease by over 25%, note the authors.

The amount of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids -- often associated with eating fish -- achieved in this study, however, are not possible to reach by simply eating more fish, warns Stark. "The [triglyceride] lowering in this study is not possible through traditional dietary means; you cannot consume enough of the omega-3 fats without using the supplements."

According to Stark, over-the-counter dietary supplements can be effective, although more studies are needed as to what the best doses are.

Stark says health care providers need to be aware of these products, and patients need to talk to their doctors openly about the effects, as well as costs, of some of these supplements. Stark also warns that patients taking high levels of omega-3 fatty acids consult a physician and get blood tests done before and during the time they are taking these supplements.

"If physicians do want to incorporate these products, they need to monitor them as they would any drug to ensure that they are working," he concludes.

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