Study casts doubt on fish-oil pills for heart disease

Consumer Reports News: September 12, 2012 10:08 AM

The idea that fish-oil pills protect the heart has hit another snag now that a comprehensive review concludes that the supplement doesn't lower the risk of death, heart attack, or stroke among people at increased cardiovascular risk.

Greek researchers looked at 18 randomized trials involving a total of 63,533 people between ages 49 and 70, about half of whom took supplements containing 1.5 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day for two years, on average. Most of the studies were trying to prevent second heart attacks or strokes in people who had already had one. The study, in this week's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, found no statistically significant association between fish-oil pills and all-cause mortality, cardiac death, sudden death, heart attack, or stroke.

The findings are similar to an April review that looked at 14 clinical trials with 20,485 heart patients, and found little evidence that fish-oil pills helped prevent heart attacks, sudden cardiac death, angina, congestive heart failure, or strokes.

"This news will be a hard pill to swallow for many fish oil supplement devotees," says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., chief medical adviser for Consumer Reports. "However, the studies do not detract one iota from the life-saving aspects of lowering cholesterol by controlling the saturated fats in our diet."

Bottom line: The latest evidence casts doubt on whether fish-oil pills are as effective as assumed, as we reported in our new report, 10 Surprising Dangers of Vitamins and Supplements. But most people can get enough omega-3s by eating fatty fish, such as herring, salmon, sardines, and tilapia (which are also low in mercury), at least twice a week. The American Heart Association hasn't changed its advice as a result of this new study, including that people who have coronary artery disease may want to talk to their doctor about omega-3 supplementation. It's important to check with a doctor before taking omega-3 pills because they can interact with some medications. See our story on fish-oil pills vs. claims, including Ratings of 14 brands of the supplements. And see our advice on how to prevent and treat heart disease.

Association Between Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation and Risk of Major Cardiovascular Disease Events [Journal of the American Medical Association]

Doug Podolsky

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