Just two portions of oily fish a week can help protect you from heart problems and may add years to your life.
We’ve known for some time that eating oily fish, like salmon, mackerel, sardine and herring brings health benefits thanks to the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids they contain. Now a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and the University of Washington has found that eating oily fish can significantly reduce the risk of dying from heart disease.
“Although eating fish has long been considered part of a healthy diet, few studies have assessed blood omega-3 levels and total deaths in older adults,” said lead author Dariush Mozaffarian, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at HSPH.
“Our findings support the importance of adequate blood-omega-3 levels for cardiovascular health, and suggest that later in life these benefits could actually extend the years of remaining life.”
The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, is the first one to look at the direct link between blood levels of fatty acids and death statistics. In order to give the best picture of the potential effects of eating fish on a range of causes of death, the scientists excluded people who were taking fish oil supplements.
Researchers working on the study looked at data collected over 16 years from around 2,700 adults aged 65 or more, in the USA. All had taken part in the long-term Cardiovascular Health Study (CHS). The participants were generally healthy at the beginning of the study. They all had physical examinations, diagnostic testing, gave blood, and answered questions on their medical history, lifestyle and current health status, at the beginning of the study and regularly over the following 16 years.
At the end of the study researchers analysed the participants’ blood, checking on the total proportions of omega-3 fatty acids, and three specific fatty acids. They discovered that the three specific fatty acids, both on their own and combined, were linked to a significantly lower risk of death.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) was most strongly linked with a lower risk of having a nonfatal heart attack, while docosapentaenoic acid (DPA) was most strongly linked with lower risk of stroke death.
However it was the remaining fatty acid – docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, which stood out. DHA was most strongly related to a lower risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) death – with a 40% lower risk. This was especially so with CHD deaths linked to electrical disturbances of the heart rhythm, known as arrhythmias – with a 45% lower risk.
The volunteers in the study who had the highest levels of all three of these fatty acids had a 27% lower risk of death.
While you can get dietary omega-3 from other foods, including nuts and seeds, it isn’t the same as the long-chain omega-3 fatty acid in oily fish.
Tracy Parker, Heart Health Dietitian at the British Heart Foundation, said: “The benefits of eating fish as part of a healthy diet are well recognised and there is a growing evidence base that a dietary intake of omega-3, found in oily fish such as mackerel or sardines, is good for your heart. “With that in mind, we currently recommend that you should try to eat two portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily.”