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We have all heard for years that fish oil fights the inflammation that can lead to heart attacks. Now a new study tells us that it doesn't. But are the announcements “debunking” the use of fish oil really just a lot of hype?

A large-scale study conducted in Italy found that eating fish is good for your heart but taking fish oil capsules does not prevent heart problems in people who are already taking heart medications, recent headlines said.

The study in question, conducted by the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research in Milan, involving 860 doctors in general practice who tracked the heart health of 12,153 people who took either a single fish oil capsule or a placebo (actually a capsule of olive oil) every day for five years. Volunteers in this group were already taking Aspirin, high blood pressure medications, or statins to lower cholesterol because they had been deemed to be at high risk for heart attack or stroke due to smoking, diabetes, obesity, or family history of cardiovascular disease. 

The purpose of the study was to measure whether taking a small amount of fish oil would be a useful addition to aggressive medical treatment to prevent cardiovascular catastrophes. Since this study involved patients who had not previously had a heart attack or stroke, deaths from cardiovascular disease would be interpreted as arising from undetected heart or vascular disease in people who otherwise were known to be a high risk.

Indications from the study were that fish oil did not add to the benefits of aggressive medical treatment. During the five years of the study, 12% of participants taking fish oil daily as well as 12% of participants taking the placebo suffered heart attack, stroke, or death due to cardiovascular causes. (Actually, a slightly greater number of study participants taking fish oil suffered a cardiovascular catastrophe during the five years of the study, 11.9% of fish oil users compared to 11.7% of those who took the placebo.)

The overall rate of heart attack, stroke, or death at the end of the first year of the study was lower than the study investigators anticipated. In Italy, fish oil is routinely prescribed to patients who have already had a heart attack, and the cost of the fish oil covered by medical insurance, but fish oil had not been given on a routine basis to high-risk patients who had not yet had heart attack or stroke.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Risk and Prevention Study Collaborative Group, Roncaglioni MC, Tombesi M, Avanzini F, Barlera S, Caimi V, Longoni P, Marzona I,Milani V, Silletta MG, Tognoni G, Marchioli R. n-3 fatty acids in patients with multiple cardiovascular risk factors.N Engl J Med. 2013 May 9. 368(19):1800-8. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1205409.
  • Castañer O, Covas MI, Khymenets O, Nyyssonen K, Konstantinidou V, Zunft HF, de la Torre R, Muñoz-Aguayo D, Vila J, Fitó M. Protection of LDL from oxidation by olive oil polyphenols is associated with a downregulation of CD40-ligand expression and its downstream products in vivo in humans. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 May. 95(5):1238-44. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.111.029207. Epub 2012 Mar 21. PMID: 22440854.
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