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Heart Disease Health Center

Omega-3 Fatty Acid May Protect Heart

EPA, a Fatty Acid in Fish Oil, May Prevent Nonfatal Heart Problems
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

March 29, 2007 -- An omega-3 fatty acid found in fish oil may help prevent nonfatal heart problems in some people with high cholesterol, a Japanese study shows.

The omega-3 fatty acid is called EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). It's found in fish such as salmon and mackerel, along with another fatty acid called DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).

The Japanese study looked at more than 18,600 adults with high cholesterol, including 3,660 people with a history of coronary artery disease.

The coronary arteries supply blood to heart muscle. Unhealthy coronary arteries make heart attacks more likely, and high cholesterol is a risk factor for coronary artery disease.

Study participants were followed for more than four years, on average. During that time, they all took cholesterol-lowering statin drugs.

The researchers assigned half the participants to also take pills containing highly purified EPA. For comparison, the other participants only took their statins, with no EPA pills.

Then the researchers tracked major coronary events, such as sudden cardiac death, fatal or nonfatal heart attack, or other nonfatal heart problems, in both groups for 4.6 years, on average.

EPA Advantage

During the study, the vast majority of patients had no major heart problems.

However, 2.8% of those taking EPA along with statins experienced a major coronary event, compared with 3.5% of those only taking statins.

That's a 19% difference, note the researchers, who included Mitsuhiro Yokoyama, MD, of Kobe University in Kobe, Japan.

EPA pills weren't linked to any difference in fatal heart attacks or sudden cardiac death.

When Yokoyama's team took a closer look at the data, they found the EPA advantage only applied to patients with a known history of coronary artery disease.

Patients with high cholesterol but no history of coronary artery disease may also get some heart protection from EPA, but that's not certain, since so few of them had major heart problems during the study.

The researchers conclude that EPA is a "promising treatment" for the prevention of heart problems in Japanese patients with high cholesterol.

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