Omega Fats Linked to Lower Cardiovascular Mortality

April 01, 2013

Omega Fats Linked to Lower Cardiovascular Mortality 

 Reference:  Annals of Internal Medicine April 2013 

 First up, then down, then up!  Omega fats get the thumbs up, then the thumbs down. What’s a fish to do?  Here is another up, and my read of what the consensus shows should be our foundation of good common sense. This study followed 2692 adults, average age of 74 (+/- 5) for a total of 30,829 human years in which 1625 deaths including 570 cardiovascular deaths.  

This is a prospective study and the participants were chosen as those with no prior cardiovascular disease.  This study was unique in that the authors studied the precise blood levels of omega fatty acids including DHA and EPA and total fatty acids prior to starting.  With that information in hand, they linked those findings to mortality.  Now, the original data was collected in 1992, long before omega fats became “hip”. The findings are pretty strong.  Higher fatty acids resulted in folks living 2.2 years longer in the highest 20% of blood level omega fatty acids compared to those in the bottom 20%. 

The highest DHA was associated with 40% less heart attack risk and the highest DPA was associated with 47% less stroke risk.   (For those of you who don’t know what DPA is, it is an intermediate between EPA and DHA and is found only in seal oil and mothers’ milk.  It is about 33% of the omega fats circulating in human blood so it is a critical player in human health.  Inuit have a lot of it in their diet because they eat seals.) This study is another in the continued series that show the benefit of omega fats to human diets.  In America we have generally lost our omega fats because our animals don’t eat grass, the ultimate source of omega fats.  As an apparent consequence, cardiovascular disease is our number one killer.  

The weaknesses of this study are also significant.  One reading of omega fats does not a lifetime blood level make.  It infers a lifestyle that includes a regular intake of those fats.  But there is quite a lot of literature that shows that fats change quite dramatically quite quickly.  Eating lousy fats changes the flow of blood in arms dramatically.  Single meal studies show it too.  This study could have reflected the results of single meals within the last day or two.  But a person who eats a single meal of salmon is likely to eat another, so the correlation stands.  

What the study doesn’t show is the benefit of maintaining a blood level of omega fats in the range of the Inuit (far higher than these participants), who have virtually no heart disease.  It simply implies a direction and suggests that eating more omega fats is good for us.  It doesn’t really give us guidance about dose, just that the top 20% lived two years longer.  What would happen if there was a large enough group that ate three times or ten times as much, all the time?  Not answered. The Inuit eat 10-20 times as much and have no heart disease (until they start eating white bread, chips, and “Western” food) 

 WWW. What will work for me?  I’m totally intrigued by this topic as I have now seen folks reduce their cardiac calcium burden with a formula that includes fish oil, implying that they are reversing their coronary artery disease.  We don’t have large studies yet, and doing so would require huge funding – something not likely to happen on a topic that reduces the income of our health economy.  Our hospitals, pharmaceutical industry, and insurance companies all make money when you are sick, not when you are well.  It’s up to me to keep me well.  I’m taking two grams a day of DHA and EPA (one tablespoon of liquid) most days and 5 grams some days.  If I could find DPA I’d buy it, but it’s a bit hard to go seal hunting in Milwaukee.  I could still die of cardiovascular disease, but I’d like to give a shot at dodging it.   

 Pop Quiz 

 1.  Omega three fatty acids correlate in this study with 20-40% less cardiovascular mortality.  T or F                          Answer:  True. That's it in a nutshell. 

 2.  DPA is a rarely talked about omega fat that is also strongly linked to lower mortality.  T or F Answer:   True, but you can only get it in seal oil and mothers' milk. 

 3.  We have good research proving that taking fish oil will reverse coronary artery disease.  T or F                     Answer:  False.  Slow it down, reduce it, prevent it yes.  Reverse it?  Not yet.  Only hints and skepticism it will ever be studied any time soon. 

 4.  One meal can have a dramatic impact on the fats in your blood?  T or F                      Answer:  True.  We have good studies showing the eating of lousy fats immediately impacts the blood flow in your arm, for the worse.  We don't have as many of the opposite studies. 

 5.  In light of recent up and down news about fish oil, it makes sense to keep taking some.  T or F                      Answer:  True.  We used to have it in our diet, and don't now because our animals are not grass raised.  Eat grass-raised meat if you can.  One serving of salmon (6 oz) has about 5 grams of omega 3 fats.

This column was written by John E Whitcomb, MD, Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI.