Fish Oils May Be Lifesavers

Fatty Acids in Fish Might Save More Lives Than Defibrillators, Experts Say

Aug. 30, 2006 - Fish oils in fatty fish like salmon might be even better than heart devices called defibrillators at preventing sudden death from heart problems.

"Choosing fish two or three times a week is a good idea," researcher Thomas Kottke, MD, MSPH, tells WebMD.

"Grilled, baked, or broiled -- not fried," he adds. "Fried fish appears to lose all of its benefits."

The study by Kottke and colleagues will appear in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine's October edition.

Kottke works in St. Paul, Minn., at Regions Hospital's Heart Center.

Sudden Death Risk

Kottke's team created a computer model to check sudden death risk in a fictional group of people aged 30-84 in Olmstead County, Minn.

The researchers tested several scenarios.

In one scenario, people ate adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids from fish or fish oil supplements (in reality, the typical Western diet is short on omega-3 fatty acids).

In another scenario, automated external defibrillators (AEDs) were available in people's homes and in all public areas.

AEDs are used to shock the heart back into action if it develops a fatal rhythm problem that can result in sudden death.

In a third scenario, people who needed implantable defibrillators because of heart failureheart failure got those devices. Heart failure greatly increases the chance of sudden death.

Fish Oils Trumped Defibrillators

All three scenarios lowered sudden death risk. But omega-3 fatty acids yielded the best results -- even in healthy people.

Sudden death risk dropped 6.4% with adequate omega-3 fatty acid intake, compared with 3.3% for implantable defibrillators, and less than 1% with easy access to AEDS, the study shows.

What's more, about three-quarters of the imaginary lives saved in the omega-3 group were healthy people, note Kottke and colleagues.

Defibrillators Added Benefit

The researchers aren't saying defibrillators don't work. Those devices can save lives, Kottke's team writes.

In fact, sudden death risk was reduced most by combining all three scenarios - getting enough omega-3s, distributing AEDs, and giving appropriate patients implantable defibrillators.

But when it comes to omega-3 fatty acids, the old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure may sum up the study's findings.

Omega-3 Sources

Kottke's computer model was based on omega-3 fatty acids from fish.

But omega-3 fatty acids aren't just in fish. Other sources include walnuts, flaxseed, canola oil, broccoli, cantaloupe, kidney beans, spinach, grape leaves, Chinese cabbage, and cauliflower.

Still, "fish oil has a lot more omega-3s than flax, and that's the same with … walnuts," Kottke tells WebMD.

Fish oil supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids are another option.

If you eat fish two or three times weekly, do you still need supplements?

"Probably not," Kottke says. "It appears that that's adequate and that the benefit actually comes at fairly low levels of consumption."

Supplements aren't regulated as strictly as prescription drugs. So, if you opt for that source of omega-3, do your homework and choose a high-quality supplement from a reputable company.

If you do decide to take fish-oil pills, tell your doctor. That way, your doctor can keep track of all the medicines and supplements you're taking.

Not a Cure-All

Kottke stresses that his study didn't directly test omega-3 fatty acids in actual people to prevent sudden death. Such studies are being done in Italy and the U.K., he notes.

Eating fish or taking fish oil pills won't make up for smoking, inactivity, and other heart hazards, Kottke warns.

"We need to prioritize nutritionnutrition and physical activity right up there with brushing our teeth," he says.

His short list of lifestyle tips:

  • Don't smoke.
  • Eat a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables.
  • Limit saturated fat.
  • Get enough physical activity - for example, taking 10,000 steps per day (a pedometer can help you keep count).
  • A limited amount of alcohol may also be healthy (maximum one drink a day for women, two drinks for men).
  • Eat a small amount of nuts regularly.

Kottke says he sprinkles almonds, banana, and peaches on his breakfast cereal. His evening snack is a glass of wine and some almonds instead of cheese and crackers.

"Nuts are very good for you," Kottke says. But nuts are high in calories, so don't overdo it.

The bottom line: Your daily habits -- including what you put on your plate -- matters. "It makes a huge difference," Kottke says.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Kottke, T. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, October 2006; vol 31. Thomas Kottke, MD, MSPH, The Heart Center, Regions Hospital, St. Paul, Minn. Health Behavior News Service.
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