Are Fish Oil Supplements Good for Heart Health?

Diana Zuckerman, PhD and Danielle Shapiro, MD, MPH, National Center for Health Research

About 8% of adults in the United States take fish oil supplements. The American Heart Association (AHA), recommends fish oil supplements for heart health, including a 2017 science advisory recommendation for patients with a recent heart attack.  However, a recent statistical analysis of 10 large clinical trials found that fish oil capsules do little to protect patients with heart disease.

The study was a meta-analysis, which means it combines data from different, similar studies, and it was published in the medical journal JAMA Cardiology.  The researchers concluded that patients who have heart disease, including those who have had a prior heart attack or stroke, do not benefit from fish oil supplements. Taking the supplements did not decrease the chances of having a heart attack or stroke, or of dying from a heart attack or stroke, or of dying from any other cause. The studies included almost 80,000 patients with coronary heart disease, stroke, or diabetes who were followed for about 4 years while taking fish oil supplements or a sugar pill (placebo).

These conclusions are different from the American Heart Association (AHA), which concluded that taking fish oil supplements has a very small benefit, decreasing cardiac-related deaths and deaths from other causes. The AHA stands by their recommendation to use fish oil supplements to prevent a second heart attack or stroke (this is also known as “secondary prevention”).

Why the difference of opinion? Some experts believe that because most patients in the study were already taking many other kinds of heart medications, the fish oil supplements didn’t have an added benefit. They suggest that perhaps patients who are not being treated with other heart medications could benefit from taking fish oil. More research is underway.

 The Bottom Line: If you have had a heart attack or stroke, fish oil supplements do little to protect you from having another one or dying from one. Fish oil supplements may be more effective at reducing cancer, according to recent studies. (see, there is some evidence that fish oil may not be a good idea for cancer patients on platinum-based chemotherapy. It’s important to remember to tell your doctors about all medications you are taking, including dietary supplements and pills bought over the counter.


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