Fish oil supplements could help prevent the risk of sudden death, according to new research from Italy. Fish oil supplements have already been shown to help reduce the risk of strokes or heart attack, but this is the first time that they have been implicated in maintaining a regular heartbeat.
Dr Roberto Marchioli of Consorzio Mario Negri Sud in Italy, the lead author of the study, said that the effects of fish oil could be seen as early as three months after beginning supplementation. "The risk of death, and sudden death, is higher in the first months after a heart attack. It is exactly in this period that the effect on sudden death was noted."
Marchioli started from the hypothesis that adding n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) - commonly found in fish and fish oil - to a healthy diet could lower the risk of fatal arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat that in severe cases can lead to cardiac arrest.
His team looked at 11,323 patients who had suffered a heart attack within the previous three, all of whom had received the same medical care and all of whom had healthy, Mediterranean diets - rich in fruit, vegetables, olive oil and fish.
A random group of patients were also given one gram of fish oil supplements per day.
Over a three-and-a-half year period, some 1,031 of the subjects died, according to Marchioli, but the data showed that those patients receiving the fish oil supplements had a 41 per cent lower risk of death from any cause after just three months of treatment.
After four months, these patients also appeared to be at a significantly reduced risk of sudden cardiac death, while by the end of the study period they were 45 per cent less likely to die suddenly from a heart-related cause.
"This study is important because there is no really effective therapy for arrhythmias," said Alexander Leaf, professor of clinical medicine at Harvard Medical School, writing in an editorial accompanying the study, published in the 9 April issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.
Leaf suggested that fatty acids might play a part in regulating the electrical activity of heart muscle cells - a process responsible for the heart rhythm. He added that taking the supplements while eating a Mediterranean diet could enhance the beneficial effects of the fish oil in decreasing the risk of sudden death.