May 27, 2003 -- There's nothing fishy about fish oil's ability to protect your heart, according to a new study. Researchers say the omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish such as tuna, salmon, and bluefish can prevent sudden cardiac death by blocking fatal heart rhythms.
Sudden cardiac death -- a sudden, unexpected death caused by loss of heart function -- is blamed for more than 300,000 deaths annually in the U.S. Researchers say sudden cardiac death accounts for more than 50% of heart-related deaths.
Eating fish has long been associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, but until now researchers have been unable to provide laboratory evidence to explain this heart-healthy effect.
Why Fish Oil Is Good
In a new study, published in the May 27 issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, researchers found that omega-3 fatty acids from fish oils are stored in the cell membranes of heart cells and can prevent sudden cardiac death by blocking potentially fatal heart rhythms.
In an animal study, researchers found that adding omega-3 fatty acids to heart cells prevented deadly heart rhythms that would have been normally induced by toxins. Researchers say this protective effect might explain the lower rates of heart-related death found in previous studies on fish oil.
What's the Best Way to Get Your Fish Oil?
- Fresh fish or frozen fish are the best source of omega-3 fatty acids, says researcher Alexander Leaf, MD, professor of clinical medicine emeritus at Harvard University, in a news release.
- Canned tuna packed in water is also a good source. But Leaf says tuna packed in oil is not a good choice because the extra oil will extract the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids from the fish.
Time to Get Serious
In an editorial that accompanies the study, David S. Siscovick, MD, MPH, of the University of Washington in Seattle, and colleagues say these findings clearly show that it's time to get serious about the American Heart Association's dietary guidelines, which recommend eating one to two fish meals, particularly fatty fish, per week.
They say eating modest amounts of omega-3 fatty acids in healthy people and low-dose fish oil supplements in people with a history of heart attack are low-cost, safe ways to reduce the risk of sudden cardiac death. Read more about sudden cardiac death.