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Heart-healthy fish consumption: Is the big one getting away?

October 12, 2009 | 12:42 pm

For even the most skeptical consumer of news on health and nutrition, the link between increased consumption of fish and better heart health seemed to be something one could take to the bank--a reliable, unassailable finding.

No more. A major European study that tracked the health and habits of every older adult in a suburb of Rotterdam, the Netherlands, has found no significant relationship between their consumption of fish and their likelihood of developing heart failure. The latest Rotterdam study is published in the October issue of the European Journal of Heart Failure.

By the time a person reaches 40, he or she has roughly a one-in-four likelihood of suffering heart failure, and an estimated 5.7 million Americans live with the condition. Strong evidence exists that the regular consumption of even small amounts of the long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (also known as "Omega-3s") lowers an individual's risk of coronary heart disease. The American College of Cardiology recently published a review of four studies of Omega-3 intake and concluded there is "great promise" for the prevention of cardiovascular disease in the consumption of long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. 

Omega 3 consumption is thought to affect cardiovascular risk by suppressing inflammation, reducing heart rate, blood pressure and the buildup of fatty deposits in the blood, as well as by helping to maintain normal heart rhythm. But the current study suggests that the heart muscle's failure to pump sufficient blood for everyday activities is not averted by Omega-3 consumption.

The study divided its 5,299 subjects, with a mean age of 67.5 years, into five groups depending on the frequency and amount of their fish consumption. At the end of 11.4 years, the 669 subjects who developed heart failure were no more nor less likely to eat fish than those who did not, even after researchers took account of other lifestyle and dietary habits that might contribute to heart problems.

Dr. Marianne Geleinjse of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, one of the study's authors, acknowledged the study appears to run counter to mounting evidence for fish consumption's beneficial effects. "Based on our data, we would not change... advice" suggesting that people eat at least two weekly servings of fish, she added. Geleinjse cautioned that Dutch intake of fish is extremely low--on average less than one serving per week. "So maybe higher intakes are needed for any protection against heart failure," she noted.

-- Melissa Healy