Fishing for Answers: Does an Omega-3 Fatty Acid Improve Heart Health?

Apr. 7, 2017

Study results are mixed on whether omega-3 fatty acids, nutrients found most readily in fish like salmon and tuna, are beneficial when it comes to preventing heart disease.

salmonResearchers are taking a fresh look at omega 3’s in the prevention and treatment of a particular type of heart disease called diastolic heart failure or heart failure with preserved ejection fraction, which occurs when the heart muscle becomes stiff and can’t pump oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. There are no effective therapies for patients with this condition; doctors can only treat risk factors for its development, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

Robert C. Block, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences, the Cardiology Division of the Department of Medicine, and the Center for Community Health at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, is partnering with scientists from Penn State and the University of Minnesota to analyze the effects of a specific omega-3 fatty acid called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).

In the National Institutes of Health funded project, Block will review data from a medical research study that has followed more than 6,000 men and women in the U.S since 2000. Called MESA, for Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, the study includes white, African American, Hispanic and Asian participants and captures information on lifestyle habits, such as diet, blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids, and risk factors for heart disease. Where past studies have looked at fish oil supplements that contain omega 3’s, Block will analyze the relationship between EPA in blood (which increases with seafood intake) and diastolic heart failure.

“Heart failure is the number one cause of hospitalizations in the U.S., and diastolic heart failure is increasingly being recognized as a problem because it is very hard to manage,” said Block, a preventive cardiologist and member of the UR Medicine Heart and Vascular team. “EPA is a harmless dietary nutrient and we want to figure out if higher levels of EPA shield people from disease.”

The 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating seafood, the largest source of omega-3 fatty acids, two to three times per week. But, in Block’s experience, most Americans don’t come close to that.

Block’s study collaborators, Gregory Shearer, associate professor of nutritional sciences at Penn State, and Timothy O’Connell, assistant professor of integrative biology and physiology at the University of Minnesota, will simultaneously study EPA’s influence on a molecular level. Their work will focus on a receptor in the heart that may aid in the effectiveness of EPA. During the study, the research team will give mice with and without the receptor EPA-only diets to determine the influence of the receptor on their heart failure diagnosis.

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