Omega-3s are three-fers: In battling heart, brain, inflammatory diseases, studies show this fish oil supplement effective

Newsday, Melville, N.Y.

04-30-07

Apr. 30--Omega-3 fatty acids are a triple benefit, according to a number of scientific studies emerging in recent years. In the past month, three major findings have been published in journals, suggesting that consuming daily amounts of omega-3 fatty acids can improve the heart, brain and prevent inflammatory diseases.

"The list of medical benefits is growing," said Barry Sears, a diet author and biochemist who has done research on lipids.

In two separate studies published this month in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, scientists found that fish oils rich in omega-3s protected against cognitive decline in a group of older men at risk for cardiovascular disease. In one, conducted at the Centre for Prevention and Health Services Research in the Netherlands, the researchers calculated the intake of fish oil supplements in 210 men between 70 and 89 years of age in 1990 and then followed their cognitive status over the next five years. At the end of the study, those taking supplements had less cognitive decline than people who didn't.

The other study was conducted at many sites throughout the United States. One study measured plasma fatty acid levels in a group of 2,251 men living in Minnesota between 1990 and 1992 and from 1996 to 1998. During that time, investigators at the University of Minnesota, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of North Carolina and the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health in Maryland, conducted three neuropsychological tests to study attention and memory.

Again, those taking omega-3 fatty acids had less risk of "global cognitive decline," the authors reported. What's more, a number of cardiovascular factors were pushed in the direction of better health.

Sears said that omega-3 fatty acids help lower blood pressure and increase the flexibility of the vascular wall. High blood pressure can make the wall more rigid. He said that the omega-3 fatty acids can also penetrate red blood cells, making them more flexible and better able to get through narrowed arteries.

There are more cardiovascular benefits, according to a study published in Lancet last month. Japanese researchers at Kobe University studied 18,000 people with high cholesterol and some kind of unhealthy heart history. Everyone was prescribed statins, the cholesterol-lowering agents, and half of them also received omega-3 fatty acids while the others swallowed a placebo.

They were followed for more than four years, at which time the scientists found 20 percent fewer cardiac events, including heart attacks, in those on 12 grams of fish oil a day.

Sears says that fish oil's most potent effect is as an anti-inflammatory agent. He says that it is now being used in a number of inflammatory disorders, including arthritis, lupus and some cancers. Sears says that studies have shown that nutrients in the fish oil regulate genes involved in inflammation.

"Our genes co-evolved with the foods we have eaten for centuries," Sears said.

Keri Gans, a nutritionist and president-elect of the New York Dietetic Association, advised that "not all omegas are created equal." Others said it's best to use a product from an established manufacturer. In any case, a good quality pill should not taste fishy, she said.