Video: Omega-3 supplements don’t prevent heart disease

Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids - a mouthful to say, and you may have heard the advice you should get mouthfuls of the stuff to improve your cardiovascular health and reduce the risk of a heart attack. The National Heart Foundation says Australians should get 500 milligrams of omega-3 a day, which amounts to a couple of serves of oily fish (such as salmon or trout) per week.

Research suggests a diet with an adequate amount of omega-3 reduces your cholesterol and your risk of heart attack. But if you aren’t eating fish, can omega-3 supplements work in the same way? A recent study suggests not.

In this meta-analysis, the researchers collected 10 large studies which looked at the question of whether or not taking omega-3 supplements was associated with a reduced risk of coronary heart disease or other major vascular events (like stroke).

In all, more than 77,000 patients were investigated in those studies. Each of the studies included in the analysis was a randomised trial, meaning some patients received omega-3 supplements and some didn’t, allowing the researchers to monitor what effect - if any - the supplement had on those who participated over time. The average length of a study was 4.4 years.

The analysis found that there was no significant association between use of omega-3 fatty acid supplements and heart attack, stroke, or other major vascular events. That persisted even when the researchers looked at different ‘subgroups’ - men, women, those with a history of diabetes or those with a history of heart problems. Neither did omega-3 fatty acid supplements have an effect on the overall risk of death between those who took them and those who didn’t.

Implications

It’s been debated for years whether or not supplements are a useful way to get omega-3 fatty acids to protect against the risk of heart disease. This analysis adds weight to previous studies suggesting there is no established benefit. It also accords with the Heart Foundation’s stance - which used to recommend the use of omega-3 supplements as good for heart health, but has since updated its position to state there is insufficient evidence to support the use of these supplements. For now, your best bet is to keep on with those serves of oily fish - and to watch this space for future studies on the topic.

References

Aung, et al. (2018). Associations of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplement Use With Cardiovascular Disease Risks. JAMA Cardiology doi: 10.1001/jamacardio.20175205