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Sea Change for Marine Omega-3s

Randomized Trials Show Fish Oil Reduces Cardiovascular Events
Published:October 15, 2019DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mayocp.2019.04.027

      Abstract

      Recently, 3 large randomized controlled trials (RCTs) have assessed the effects of supplementation with marine omega-3 fatty acids on the occurrence of cardiovascular disease (CVD) events. We reviewed this evidence and considered it in the context of the large and growing body of data on the CV health effects of marine omega-3s. One RCT examining 8179 patients, most with coronary heart disease (CHD), reported that 4 grams/day of a highly purified omega-3 product containing eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) reduced the risk for major adverse CV events by 25% (P<.001). Two other recent RCTs in primary prevention populations showed that approximately 1 gram/day of purified fish oil containing 840 mg/day of EPA and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) significantly reduced risks of CHD and CV death, especially in individuals who did not consume fish and seafood frequently. The American Heart Association (AHA) continues to emphasize the importance of marine omega-3s as a nutrient for potentially reducing risks of congestive heart failure, CHD, ischemic stroke, and sudden cardiac death. Marine omega-3s should be used in high doses for patients with CHD on statins who have elevated triglycerides and at about 1 gram/day for primary prevention for individuals who do not consume at least 1.5 fish or seafood meals per week.

      Abbreviations and Acronyms:

      AFIB (atrial fibrillation), AHA (American Heart Association), ALA (α-linolenic acid), CHD (coronary heart disease), CV (cardiovascular), CVD (cardiovascular disease), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), DPA (docosapentaenoic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), hsCRP (high-sensitivity C-reactive protein), HR (hazard ratio), IPE (icosapent ethyl), LDL-C (low-density lipoprotein cholesterol), LV (left ventricle), LVESVI (left ventricular end-systolic volume index), LVEF (ventricular eject faction), MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), MACE (major adverse CV events), MI (myocardial infarction), O-3FA (omega-3 fatty acids), PUFA (polyunsaturated fatty acid), RBC (red blood cell), RCT (randomized controlled trial), TG (triglyceride)
      Article Highlights
      • High-dose EPA (4 grams/day) lowered adverse cardiovascular events in patients with coronary heart disease who are on statins, with baseline triglycerides > 150 mg/dL.
      • Low-dose omega-3 (850 mg of EPA + DHA) reduced cardiovascular events for individuals who do not consume at least 1.5 fish/seafood meals per week.
      • Low-dose omega-3 (850 mg of EPA + DHA) appears to reduce fatal cardiovascular events in both primary and secondary prevention.
      The family of marine omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs)—specifically, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—ignited public interest after native Greenlandic Inuit populations sustaining themselves on a marine-based diet demonstrated a substantially lower incidence of cardiovascular disease (CVD) compared with their Western counterparts.
      • Bang H.O.
      • Dyerberg J.
      • Nielsen A.B.
      Plasma lipid and lipoprotein pattern in Greenlandic West-coast Eskimos.
      Because, in humans, the plant-derived omega-3 precursor alpha-linolenic acid is very poorly converted to EPA and DHA in vivo, consumption of these latter 2 fatty acids from the diet and/or supplementation is preferred. Typically, the modern Western diet lacks meaningful amounts of marine-based foods, and, accordingly, omega-3 fatty acid blood levels are low. Thus, the potential for improving long-term health—especially with respect to CV outcomes—through increasing intake of EPA and DHA is significant. Intervention studies over the past decade, however, have been inconsistent, with some studies reporting benefit and others finding none. Recently, large randomized controlled trials (RCTs) have helped clarify the role of omega-3 fatty acids in primary and secondary prevention of CVD.
      Three large-scale RCTs were recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine: Reduction of Cardiovascular Events with Icosapent Ethyl–Intervention Trial (REDUCE-IT); A Study of Cardiovascular Events iN Diabetes (ASCEND); and VITamin D and OmegA-3 TriaL (VITAL). These landmark trials assessed the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on CV outcomes.
      • Bhatt D.L.
      • Steg P.G.
      • Miller M.
      • et al.
      Cardiovascular risk reduction with icosapent ethyl for hypertriglyceridemia.
      • Manson J.E.
      • Cook N.R.
      • Lee I.M.
      • et al.
      Marine n-3 fatty acids and prevention of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
      • Bowman L.
      • Mafham M.
      • Wallendszus K.
      • et al.
      Effects of n-3 fatty acid supplements in diabetes mellitus.
      REDUCE-IT used a high dose (∼4 grams/day) of icosapent ethyl (IPE) (Vascepa, Amarin Corporation, Bedminster, NJ), a concentrated omega-3 product that is an ethyl ester form of EPA, as an adjunctive therapy in combination with a high-intensity statin for persons with triglycerides (TGs) above 150 mg/dL. VITAL and ASCEND both used 840 mg/day of EPA + DHA ethyl esters for primary prevention of CVD.
      • Bhatt D.L.
      • Steg P.G.
      • Miller M.
      • et al.
      Cardiovascular risk reduction with icosapent ethyl for hypertriglyceridemia.
      • Bowman L.
      • Mafham M.
      • Wallendszus K.
      • et al.
      Effects of n-3 fatty acid supplements in diabetes mellitus.

      REDUCE-IT Trial

      A total of 8179 patients on statin therapy at baseline were randomized in REDUCE-IT (71% for secondary prevention of CV events) and followed for a median of 4.9 years.
      • Bhatt D.L.
      • Steg P.G.
      • Miller M.
      • et al.
      Cardiovascular risk reduction with icosapent ethyl for hypertriglyceridemia.
      The active-treatment group received 4 grams/day of IPE, whereas the control group received a mineral oil placebo. IPE lowered the primary end point—composite of CV death, nonfatal myocardial infarction (MI), nonfatal stroke, coronary revascularization, or unstable angina—by 25% with a number needed to treat of 21 (Figure 1).
      • Bhatt D.L.
      • Steg P.G.
      • Miller M.
      • et al.
      Cardiovascular risk reduction with icosapent ethyl for hypertriglyceridemia.
      This regimen also significantly reduced the key secondary end point, major adverse CV events (MACE)—composite of CV death, nonfatal MI, or nonfatal stroke—by 26%, with an absolute risk reduction of 3.6 percentage points and a number needed to treat of 28.
      • Bhatt D.L.
      • Steg P.G.
      • Miller M.
      • et al.
      Cardiovascular risk reduction with icosapent ethyl for hypertriglyceridemia.
      These remarkable omega-3 benefits were observed against a background of statin use among virtually all patients (>99%). When considering risk reduction standards, REDUCE-IT improved MACE rates much more effectively than other add-on therapies to statin background tested in a large RCT (Table 1).
      • Bhatt D.L.
      • Steg P.G.
      • Miller M.
      • et al.
      Cardiovascular risk reduction with icosapent ethyl for hypertriglyceridemia.
      • Barter P.J.
      • Caulfield M.
      • Eriksson M.
      • et al.
      Effects of torcetrapib in patients at high risk for coronary events.
      • Cannon C.P.
      • Blazing M.A.
      • Giugliano R.P.
      • et al.
      Ezetimibe added to statin therapy after acute coronary syndromes.
      • Landray M.J.
      • Haynes R.
      • et al.
      HPS2-THRIVE Collaborative Group
      Effects of extended-release niacin with laropiprant in high-risk patients.
      • Boden W.E.
      • Probstfield J.L.
      • et al.
      AIM-HIGH Investigators
      Niacin in patients with low HDL cholesterol levels receiving intensive statin therapy.
      • Ridker P.M.
      • Everett B.M.
      • Thuren T.
      • et al.
      Antiinflammatory therapy with canakinumab for atherosclerotic disease.
      • Sabatine M.S.
      • Giugliano R.P.
      • Keech A.C.
      • et al.
      Evolocumab and clinical outcomes in patients with cardiovascular disease.
      • Szarek M.
      • White H.D.
      • Schwartz G.G.
      • et al.
      Alirocumab reduces total nonfatal cardiovascular and fatal events in the ODYSSEY OUTCOMES trial.
      • Marso S.P.
      • Daniels G.H.
      • Brown-Frandsen K.
      • et al.
      Liraglutide and cardiovascular cutcomes in type 2 diabetes.
      • Zinman B.
      • Wanner C.
      • Lachin J.M.
      • et al.
      Empagliflozin, cardiovascular outcomes, and mortality in type 2 diabetes.
      • Bowman L.
      • Chen F.
      • et al.
      REVEAL Collaborative Group
      Randomized Evaluation of the Effects of Anacetrapib through Lipid-modification (REVEAL): A large-scale, randomized, placebo-controlled trial of the clinical effects of anacetrapib among people with established vascular disease: trial design, recruitment, and baseline characteristics.
      Figure thumbnail gr1
      Figure 1Cumulative incidence of cardiovascular events in REDUCE-IT. Kaplan–Meier event curves for the primary composite end point of cardiovascular death, nonfatal myocardial infarction, nonfatal stroke, coronary revascularization, or unstable angina in the icosapent ethyl (eicosapentaenoic acid ethyl esters) group vs the placebo group. Adapted from New England Journal of Medicine, with permission.
      • Bhatt D.L.
      • Steg P.G.
      • Miller M.
      • et al.
      Cardiovascular risk reduction with icosapent ethyl for hypertriglyceridemia.
      Table 1Add-on Drugs to Baseline Statin Therapy for Reducing MACE: RCT Results
      StudyDrug testedChange in absolute riskHRCI
      REDUCE-IT
      • Bhatt D.L.
      • Steg P.G.
      • Miller M.
      • et al.
      Cardiovascular risk reduction with icosapent ethyl for hypertriglyceridemia.
      IPE (omega-3)−4.8%0.750.68 to 0.83
      FOURIER
      • Sabatine M.S.
      • Giugliano R.P.
      • Keech A.C.
      • et al.
      Evolocumab and clinical outcomes in patients with cardiovascular disease.
      evolocumab−1.5%0.850.79 to 0.92
      ODYSSEY
      • Szarek M.
      • White H.D.
      • Schwartz G.G.
      • et al.
      Alirocumab reduces total nonfatal cardiovascular and fatal events in the ODYSSEY OUTCOMES trial.
      alirocumab−1.5%0.850.78 to 0.93
      IMPROVE-IT
      • Cannon C.P.
      • Blazing M.A.
      • Giugliano R.P.
      • et al.
      Ezetimibe added to statin therapy after acute coronary syndromes.
      ezetimibe−2.0%0.930.89 to 0.99
      HPS2-THRIVE
      • Landray M.J.
      • Haynes R.
      • et al.
      HPS2-THRIVE Collaborative Group
      Effects of extended-release niacin with laropiprant in high-risk patients.
      niacin + laropiprant−0.5%0.960.90 to 1.03
      AIM-HIGH
      • Boden W.E.
      • Probstfield J.L.
      • et al.
      AIM-HIGH Investigators
      Niacin in patients with low HDL cholesterol levels receiving intensive statin therapy.
      niacin+0.2%1.020.87 to 1.21
      ILLUMINATE
      • Barter P.J.
      • Caulfield M.
      • Eriksson M.
      • et al.
      Effects of torcetrapib in patients at high risk for coronary events.
      torcetrapib+1.2%1.581.09 to 1.44
      CANTOS
      • Ridker P.M.
      • Everett B.M.
      • Thuren T.
      • et al.
      Antiinflammatory therapy with canakinumab for atherosclerotic disease.
      canakinumab−0.6%0.850.74 to 0.98
      REVEAL
      • Bowman L.
      • Chen F.
      • et al.
      REVEAL Collaborative Group
      Randomized Evaluation of the Effects of Anacetrapib through Lipid-modification (REVEAL): A large-scale, randomized, placebo-controlled trial of the clinical effects of anacetrapib among people with established vascular disease: trial design, recruitment, and baseline characteristics.
      anacetrapib−1.0%0.910.85 to 0.97
      EMPA-REG
      • Zinman B.
      • Wanner C.
      • Lachin J.M.
      • et al.
      Empagliflozin, cardiovascular outcomes, and mortality in type 2 diabetes.
      empagliflozin−1.6%0.860.74 to 0.99
      LEADER
      • Marso S.P.
      • Daniels G.H.
      • Brown-Frandsen K.
      • et al.
      Liraglutide and cardiovascular cutcomes in type 2 diabetes.
      liraglutide−1.9%0.870.78 to 0.97
      CI = confidence interval; HR = hazard ratio; MACE = major adverse cardiovascular events; RCT = randomized controlled trial.
      Furthermore, in REDUCE-IT, IPE significantly reduced both CV death and sudden cardiac death by 20% and 31%, respectively (Figure 2).
      • Bhatt D.L.
      • Steg P.G.
      • Miller M.
      • et al.
      Cardiovascular risk reduction with icosapent ethyl for hypertriglyceridemia.
      Reduction in death from any cause, however, did not meet statistical significance in REDUCE-IT. Serious adverse events leading to discontinuation of the 4 capsules-per-day therapy were similar in the IPE and placebo groups. IPE compared with placebo was associated with a statistically significant increase in hospitalizations for atrial fibrillation (AFIB) (3.1% vs 2.1%, respectively, P=.004). Reassuringly, the IPE group experienced a significant 28% decrease in risk of stroke.
      • Bhatt D.L.
      • Steg P.G.
      • Miller M.
      • et al.
      Cardiovascular risk reduction with icosapent ethyl for hypertriglyceridemia.
      A meta-analysis of RCTs assessing the effects of omega-3 supplementation on occurrence of AFIB showed no statistically significant increase, although the trend was toward more, not less, AFIB in the omega-3 group (hazard ratio [HR]: 1.13, 95% CI, 0.96 to 1.33; P=.14).
      • Jiang Y.
      • Tan H.C.
      • Tam W.W.S.
      • Lim T.W.
      • Wang W.
      A meta-analysis on omega-3 supplements in preventing recurrence of atrial fibrillation.
      None of these previous studies was done with pure EPA, nor did they test the high dose (4 grams/day) used in REDUCE-IT. Hence, the effects of high-dose omega-3 on AFIB should be investigated further in future trials.
      Figure thumbnail gr2
      Figure 2The prespecified end points in the REDUCE-IT trial. The rates of all end points, except death from any cause, were significantly lower in the icosapent ethyl (eicosapentaenoic acid ethyl esters) group than in the placebo group. Adapted from New England Journal of Medicine, with permission.
      • Bhatt D.L.
      • Steg P.G.
      • Miller M.
      • et al.
      Cardiovascular risk reduction with icosapent ethyl for hypertriglyceridemia.
      Some investigators have argued that the differences in event rates in the REDUCE-IT trial may in part be due to the adverse lipid effects from the placebo rather than benefits from IPE. For the subjects enrolled in REDUCE-IT, the low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) was 75 mg/dL at baseline (on statins). In the active-intervention group, the LDL-C rose 2 mg/dL, whereas in the placebo (mineral oil) group it rose 7 mg/dL, for a net increase in LDL-C of 5 mg/dL in the latter. By extrapolating from previous RCTs (below), we can be confident that a net increase from 75 mg/dL to 80 mg/dL could not have caused the widely divergent MACE rates in REDUCE-IT.
      For example, the Further Cardiovascular Outcomes Research With PCSK9 Inhibition in Subjects With Elevated Risk (FOURIER) trial
      • Sabatine M.S.
      • Giugliano R.P.
      • Keech A.C.
      • et al.
      Evolocumab and clinical outcomes in patients with cardiovascular disease.
      enrolled 27,500 patients with atherosclerotic CVD who, like the patients in REDUCE-IT, were all on statins at baseline. In FOURIER, evolocumab dramatically decreased LDL-C from 92 mg/dL at baseline down to a median of 26 mg/dL; this 66-mg/dL drop caused a 1.5% absolute risk reduction in the primary end point: a composite of CV death, MI, stroke, unstable angina, or coronary revascularization.
      • Sabatine M.S.
      • Giugliano R.P.
      • Keech A.C.
      • et al.
      Evolocumab and clinical outcomes in patients with cardiovascular disease.
      In contrast, a 5-mg/dL LDL-C difference in REDUCE-IT was associated with a remarkable 4.8% absolute risk difference in the same end point.
      • Bhatt D.L.
      • Steg P.G.
      • Miller M.
      • et al.
      Cardiovascular risk reduction with icosapent ethyl for hypertriglyceridemia.
      Clearly, the minimal LDL changes could not have been a major driver behind the extraordinary difference in risk of adverse CV events in REDUCE-IT.
      Evidence supports TG levels as a significant independent risk factor for adverse CV events.
      • Nordestgaard B.G.
      Triglyceride-rich lipoproteins and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease: new insights from epidemiology, genetics, and biology.
      Disappointingly, niacin and fibrates—traditional TG-lowering agents—have recently failed to improve CV outcomes when added to statin therapy.
      • Nichols G.A.
      • Phillip S.
      • Reynolds K.
      • Granowitz C.B.
      • Fazio S.
      Increased cardiovascular risk in hypertriglyceridemic patients with statin-controlled LDL cholesterol.
      • Ganda O.P.
      • Bhatt D.L.
      • Mason R.P.
      • Miller M.
      • Boden W.E.
      Unmet need for adjunctive dyslipidemia therapy in hypertriglyceridemia management.
      • Lavie C.J.
      • DiNicolantonio J.J.
      • Milani R.V.
      • O'Keefe J.H.
      Niacin therapy lives for another day–maybe?.
      Although niacin significantly lowered TG levels by 21% in a large RCT, it did not lower the risk of CHD.
      • Boden W.E.
      • Probstfield J.L.
      • et al.
      AIM-HIGH Investigators
      Niacin in patients with low HDL cholesterol levels receiving intensive statin therapy.
      Unfortunately, niacin also potentially exacerbates risk for infection, serious bleeding, and diabetes.
      • Landray M.J.
      • Haynes R.
      • et al.
      HPS2-THRIVE Collaborative Group
      Effects of extended-release niacin with laropiprant in high-risk patients.
      Similarly, although fibrates effectively reduce TG levels, this class of agents confers no significant reduction in MACE when combined with a statin (except perhaps for patients with diabetes, metabolic syndrome, or atherogenic dyslipidemia).
      • Wang D.
      • Liu B.
      • Tao W.
      • Hao Z.
      • Liu M.
      Fibrates for secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease and stroke.
      • Malur P.
      • Menezes A.
      • DiNicolantonio J.J.
      • O'Keefe J.H.
      • Lavie C.J.
      The microvascular and macrovascular benefits of fibrates in diabetes and the metabolic syndrome: a review.
      The mechanisms underlying the potent CV risk reduction in REDUCE-IT remain speculative, although the 22% TG reduction with IPE (217 to 170 mg/dL) probably played a role. Subgroup analysis of REDUCE-IT revealed that IPE reduced rates of MACE significantly better in patients with high TG and low HDL levels at baseline, with relative risk reductions of 38% for those with TG ≥ 200 mg/dL and HDL ≤ 35 mg/dL, vs 21% for those with TG < 200 mg/dL and/or HDL > 35 mg/dL (both decreases were significant, P=.04 for the interaction).
      • Bhatt D.L.
      • Steg P.G.
      • Miller M.
      • et al.
      Cardiovascular risk reduction with icosapent ethyl for hypertriglyceridemia.
      Previous studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids reduce TG levels in a dose-dependent manner, with TG reductions of 15% to 45%, when using 2 to 6 grams/day of EPA + DHA.
      • Skulas-Ray A.C.
      • Kris-Etherton P.M.
      • Harris W.S.
      • Vanden Heuvel J.P.
      • Wagner P.R.
      • West S.G.
      Dose-response effects of omega-3 fatty acids on triglycerides, inflammation, and endothelial function in healthy persons with moderate hypertriglyceridemia.
      Omega-3 is more effective for lowering TG when used in combination with a high-intensity statin and/or with a weight-loss diet.
      • Kim C.H.
      • Han K.A.
      • Lee S.H.
      • et al.
      Efficacy and safety of adding omega-3 fatty acids in statin-treated patients with residual hypertriglyceridemia: ROMANTIC (Rosuvastatin-OMAcor iN residual hyperTrIglyCeridemia), a randomized, double-blind, and placebo-controlled trial.
      • Miller M.
      • Stone N.J.
      • Ballantyne C.M.
      • et al.
      Triglycerides and cardiovascular disease: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association.
      Thus, with the publication of REDUCE-IT, omega-3 (IPE in this case) is now the only TG-lowering agent that has been shown to lower MACE on top of statin therapy. Whether its capacity to lower TGs was the actual cause for the benefits IPE will require further study, as EPA has other potentially cardioprotective properties such as reducing inflammation and LDL oxidation and improving endothelial function.
      • Bhatt D.L.
      • Steg P.G.
      • Miller M.
      • et al.
      Cardiovascular risk reduction with icosapent ethyl for hypertriglyceridemia.
      • Skulas-Ray A.C.
      • Kris-Etherton P.M.
      • Harris W.S.
      • Vanden Heuvel J.P.
      • Wagner P.R.
      • West S.G.
      Dose-response effects of omega-3 fatty acids on triglycerides, inflammation, and endothelial function in healthy persons with moderate hypertriglyceridemia.
      • DiNicolantonio J.J.
      • O'Keefe J.H.
      Importance of maintaining a low omega-6/omega-3 ratio for reducing inflammation.
      The omega-3 in REDUCE-IT significantly lowered the high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hsCRP) levels. In that trial, a log scale was used to adjust for skewness in the data; this analysis showed reduction in hsCRP of 23% and 4% in the EPA and mineral oil (placebo) arms, respectively (P<.0001).
      Theoretically, omega-3 could increase bleeding risk by its effects on the arachidonic acid pathway, yielding decreased production of prothrombotic metabolites such as thromboxane A2 and plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 (PAI-1).
      • Akintoye E.
      • Sethi P.
      • Harris W.S.
      • et al.
      Fish oil and perioperative bleeding: insights from the OPERA randomized trial.
      • Harris W.S.
      Expert opinion: omega-3 fatty acids and bleeding-cause for concern?.
      Although REDUCE-IT saw no increase in fatal bleeding, hemorrhagic stroke, serious central nervous system or gastrointestinal bleeding, the rates of serious adverse bleeding events trended higher in the omega-3–treated group: 2.7% and 2.1% in the IPE group and placebo arms, respectively (P=.06). Although clinicians often assume that fish oil increases the risk of bleeding, omega-3 supplementation (1.7 grams/day of EPA + DHA) in the perioperative period did not increase the risk bleeding after open-heart surgery.
      • Akintoye E.
      • Sethi P.
      • Harris W.S.
      • et al.
      Fish oil and perioperative bleeding: insights from the OPERA randomized trial.
      Surprisingly, this recent placebo-controlled RCT of 1600 patients undergoing CV surgery found that the higher the blood level of EPA + DHA level on the morning of the surgery, the lower the need for blood transfusion.
      • Akintoye E.
      • Sethi P.
      • Harris W.S.
      • et al.
      Fish oil and perioperative bleeding: insights from the OPERA randomized trial.

      Vital Trial

      VITAL was a RCT funded by the National Institutes of Health that was composed of 25,871 Americans above 50 years of age, with no previous history of cancer or CVD.
      • Manson J.E.
      • Cook N.R.
      • Lee I.M.
      • et al.
      Marine n-3 fatty acids and prevention of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
      Participants in the active arm took 1-gram daily concentrated fish oil capsules containing 460 mg of EPA and 380 mg of DHA (Lovaza, GlaxoSmithKline, Philadelphia, PA). During a median follow-up of 5.3 years, the primary end point—the reduction in risk of MACE (a composite of MI, stroke, or death from CV causes)—failed to meet statistical significance in the omega-3 group (HR, 0.92; 95% confidence interval [CI]), 0.80 to 1.06 (P=.24). However, in VITAL, this combined daily dose of 840 mg of EPA + DHA produced statistically significant reductions in several key secondary CV end points including MI –28%, and CHD death, –17% (Figure 3).
      • Manson J.E.
      • Cook N.R.
      • Lee I.M.
      • et al.
      Marine n-3 fatty acids and prevention of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
      Figure thumbnail gr3
      Figure 3HR and 95% CI for prespecified end points in the VITAL trial.
      • Manson J.E.
      • Cook N.R.
      • Lee I.M.
      • et al.
      Marine n-3 fatty acids and prevention of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
      CHD = coronary heart disease; CI = confidence interval; CV = cardiovascular; HR = hazard ratio; MI = myocardial infarction.
      The patients in the VITAL trial, consuming less than the median amount of fish and seafood (1.5 fish meals per week), had particularly robust reductions in CV events. In this cohort with low fish consumption, the omega-3 product significantly reduced risk of MACE by 19% and risk of MI by 40%.
      • Manson J.E.
      • Cook N.R.
      • Lee I.M.
      • et al.
      Marine n-3 fatty acids and prevention of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

      Ascend Trial

      Another recent large omega-3 study also deserves consideration. ASCEND was a 7-year randomized trial of 15,480 patients with diabetes without known CVD who received daily 1- gram capsules of Lovaza (Omacor [Reliant Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Liberty Corner, NJ], the same product used in VITAL).
      • Bowman L.
      • Mafham M.
      • Wallendszus K.
      • et al.
      Effects of n-3 fatty acid supplements in diabetes mellitus.
      The placebo was a 1-gram capsule of olive oil. ASCEND was considered a negative trial because the primary end point—risk of MI, stroke or vascular death—was only 3% lower in the omega-3 group, and this did not meet statistical significance.
      However, the low-dose omega-3 product used in ASCEND did produce a statistically significant 18% relative risk reduction in vascular death, defined as death from coronary disease, stroke, or other vascular causes (Figure 4).
      • Bowman L.
      • Mafham M.
      • Wallendszus K.
      • et al.
      Effects of n-3 fatty acid supplements in diabetes mellitus.
      This important benefit was largely dismissed by investigators, who wrote that their findings did “not support the current recommendations for routine dietary supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids to prevent vascular events.”
      • Bowman L.
      • Mafham M.
      • Wallendszus K.
      • et al.
      Effects of n-3 fatty acid supplements in diabetes mellitus.
      We take exception to this conclusion, as the omega-3s clearly provided an important benefit. Just because omega-3s at relatively low doses did not reduce risk for MI or stroke in ASCEND (the 2 other components of the composite primary end point) does not mean that the significant reduction in total vascular deaths (the third component) can simply be dismissed as a non-event. In fact, a reduced risk of CV death tends to be the common denominator among many—but not all—large studies of omega-3 supplementation (Table 2).
      • Bhatt D.L.
      • Steg P.G.
      • Miller M.
      • et al.
      Cardiovascular risk reduction with icosapent ethyl for hypertriglyceridemia.
      • Manson J.E.
      • Cook N.R.
      • Lee I.M.
      • et al.
      Marine n-3 fatty acids and prevention of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
      • Bowman L.
      • Mafham M.
      • Wallendszus K.
      • et al.
      Effects of n-3 fatty acid supplements in diabetes mellitus.
      • Alexander D.D.
      • Miller P.E.
      • Van Elswyk M.E.
      • Kuratko C.N.
      • Bylsma L.C.
      A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials and prospective cohort studies of eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and coronary heart disease risk.
      • Burr M.L.
      • Fehily A.M.
      • Gilbert J.F.
      • et al.
      Effects of changes in fat, fish, and fibre intakes on death and myocardial reinfarction: diet and reinfarction trial (DART).
      • Harris W.S.
      • Del Gobbo L.
      • Tintle N.L.
      The Omega-3 Index and relative risk for coronary heart disease mortality: estimation from 10 cohort studies.
      • Tavazzi L.
      • Maggioni A.P.
      • Marchioli R.
      • et al.
      Effect of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in patients with chronic heart failure (the GISSI-HF trial): a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.
      • O'Keefe J.H.
      • Jacob D.
      • Lavie C.J.
      Omega-3 fatty acid therapy: the tide turns for a fish story.
      • Aung T.
      • Halsey J.
      • Kromhout D.
      • et al.
      Associations of omega-3 fatty acid supplement use with cardiovascular disease risks: meta-analysis of 10 trials involving 77,917 individuals.
      • Del Gobbo L.C.
      • Imamura F.
      • Aslibekyan S.
      • et al.
      Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid biomarkers and coronary heart disease: pooling project of 19 cohort studies.
      Figure thumbnail gr4
      Figure 4ASCEND trial risk of death, according to cause, in the omega-3 group vs the placebo group. Vascular death is the combined end point, which includes death from coronary disease, stroke, and other vascular causes of death. The diamonds represent the death-rate ratio and its corresponding 95% confidence interval for each of the causes. Adapted from New England Journal of Medicine, with permission.
      • Bowman L.
      • Mafham M.
      • Wallendszus K.
      • et al.
      Effects of n-3 fatty acid supplements in diabetes mellitus.
      Table 2Omega-3 Effects on Risk of Cardiovascular Death in Major Studies
      CHD = coronary heart disease; CI = confidence interval; CV = cardiovascular; HR = hazard ratio; MI = myocardial infarction; RBC = red blood cell; RCT = randomized controlled trials.
      StudyEnd pointHRCI
      ASCEND
      • Bowman L.
      • Mafham M.
      • Wallendszus K.
      • et al.
      Effects of n-3 fatty acid supplements in diabetes mellitus.
      Vascular death
      Vascular death defined as cumulative deaths due to coronary disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular causes.
      0.820.68 to 0.98
      REDUCE-IT
      • Bhatt D.L.
      • Steg P.G.
      • Miller M.
      • et al.
      Cardiovascular risk reduction with icosapent ethyl for hypertriglyceridemia.
      CV death0.750.68 to 0.83
      VITAL
      • Manson J.E.
      • Cook N.R.
      • Lee I.M.
      • et al.
      Marine n-3 fatty acids and prevention of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
      Death from MI0.500.26 to 0.97
      DART
      • Harris W.S.
      • Del Gobbo L.
      • Tintle N.L.
      The Omega-3 Index and relative risk for coronary heart disease mortality: estimation from 10 cohort studies.
      CV death0.710.54 to 0.92
      GISSI Prevenzione
      GISSI-Preventione-Investigators
      Dietary supplementation with n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and vitamin E after myocardial infarction: results of the GISSI-Prevenzione trial. Gruppo Italiano per lo studio della Sopravvivenza nell’infarto miocardico.
      Total mortality0.800.67 to 0.95
      GISSI-HF
      • Tavazzi L.
      • Maggioni A.P.
      • Marchioli R.
      • et al.
      Effect of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in patients with chronic heart failure (the GISSI-HF trial): a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.
      Total mortality0.910.83 to 0.99
      Meta-analysis of omega-3 levels (RBC/plasma/adipose)
      • Harris W.S.
      • Del Gobbo L.
      • Tintle N.L.
      The Omega-3 Index and relative risk for coronary heart disease mortality: estimation from 10 cohort studies.
      CHD death
      Risk reduction from increasing Omega-3 Index from 4% (average for US adult) to 8% (average Japanese adult).
      0.700.60 to 0.81
      Meta-analysis of RCTs
      • Alexander D.D.
      • Miller P.E.
      • Van Elswyk M.E.
      • Kuratko C.N.
      • Bylsma L.C.
      A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials and prospective cohort studies of eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and coronary heart disease risk.
      CHD death0.810.65 to 1.00
      Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies
      • Alexander D.D.
      • Miller P.E.
      • Van Elswyk M.E.
      • Kuratko C.N.
      • Bylsma L.C.
      A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials and prospective cohort studies of eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and coronary heart disease risk.
      Total mortality0.770.66 to 0.90
      a CHD = coronary heart disease; CI = confidence interval; CV = cardiovascular; HR = hazard ratio; MI = myocardial infarction; RBC = red blood cell; RCT = randomized controlled trials.
      b Vascular death defined as cumulative deaths due to coronary disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular causes.
      c Risk reduction from increasing Omega-3 Index from 4% (average for US adult) to 8% (average Japanese adult).

      Importance of Achieving Optimal Omega-3 Levels

      A large meta-analysis of global studies using biomarkers of omega-3 levels in 45,637 participants without prevalent CHD revealed that higher omega-3 levels—as measured in the red blood cell (RBC) membranes, plasma, or adipose tissue—are strongly correlated with lower incidence of fatal CHD (Figure 5).
      • Siscovick D.S.
      • Barringer T.A.
      • Fretts A.M.
      • et al.
      Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid (fish oil) supplementation and the prevention of clinical cardiovascular disease: a science advisory from the American Heart Association.
      Experimental studies in humans and animals indicate that omega-3s may have membrane-stabilizing antiarrhythmic effects that protect against ischemia-induced ventricular fibrillation.
      • O'Keefe Jr., J.H.
      • Abuissa H.
      • Sastre A.
      • Steinhaus D.M.
      • Harris W.S.
      Effects of omega-3 fatty acids on resting heart rate, heart rate recovery after exercise, and heart rate variability in men with healed myocardial infarctions and depressed ejection fractions.
      • Harris W.S.
      • von Schacky C.
      The Omega-3 Index: a new risk factor for death from coronary heart disease?.
      Figure thumbnail gr5
      Figure 5RR of fatal CHD per 1-SD increase in the blood/tissue/cell membrane levels for 4 different omega-3 fatty acids: ALA, EPA, DPA, and DHA. Estimates were pooled using random effects meta-analysis. The diamonds represent the RR for fatal CHD and its corresponding 95% CI for each of the omega-3 fatty acids. Original figure with information obtained from JAMA Internal Medicine.
      • Del Gobbo L.C.
      • Imamura F.
      • Aslibekyan S.
      • et al.
      Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid biomarkers and coronary heart disease: pooling project of 19 cohort studies.
      ALA = α-linolenic acid; CHD = coronary heart disease; CI = confidence interval; DHA = docosahexaenoic acid; DPA = docosapentaenoic acid; EPA = eicosapentaenoic acid; RR = relative risk.
      The results of REDUCE IT, in particular, suggest that optimal omega-3 benefits require a high-enough dose. It is an axiom in medicine that if the dose of any agent is too low, the agent will be ineffective. Why would the same not be true for omega-3 fatty acids? Hence, the goal in future omega-3 RCTs should be to achieve a target blood/tissue level of EPA and DHA, regardless of what dose is required to accomplish this. The Omega-3 Index is a quantitative measurement of EPA + DHA content of RBC membranes that was proposed in 2004 to be a risk factor for CVD death.
      • Harris W.S.
      • Del Gobbo L.
      • Tintle N.L.
      The Omega-3 Index and relative risk for coronary heart disease mortality: estimation from 10 cohort studies.
      • Harris W.S.
      • von Schacky C.
      The Omega-3 Index: a new risk factor for death from coronary heart disease?.
      This metric is highly correlated with omega-3 levels of human cardiac tissue
      • Harris W.S.
      • Sands S.A.
      • Windsor S.L.
      • et al.
      Omega-3 fatty acids in cardiac biopsies from heart transplantation patients: correlation with erythrocytes and response to supplementation.
      • Metcalf R.G.
      • Cleland L.G.
      • Gibson R.A.
      • et al.
      Relation between blood and atrial fatty acids in patients undergoing cardiac bypass surgery.
      and is preferred to more volatile plasma-based measurements of omega-3. Hence, just as hemoglobin A1C is the clinical standard for assessing glycemic status, the Omega-3 Index is the superior method for evaluating long-term omega-3 status.
      A large meta-analysis recently reported that a 1 standard deviation (SD) increase (2.1%) in the Omega-3 Index, above the mean, was associated with a 15% relative risk reduction for fatal CHD.
      • Tavazzi L.
      • Maggioni A.P.
      • Marchioli R.
      • et al.
      Effect of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in patients with chronic heart failure (the GISSI-HF trial): a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.
      Thus, compared with an Omega-3 Index of 4%, which is the current American approximate mean, an Omega-3 Index of approximately 8% would translate into predicted risk reduction in fatal CHD by approximately 35%.
      • Tavazzi L.
      • Maggioni A.P.
      • Marchioli R.
      • et al.
      Effect of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in patients with chronic heart failure (the GISSI-HF trial): a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.
      A dose-response study indicates that to raise the Omega-3 Index from 4% to 8% would require an increased consumption of approximately 1.5 g/day of EPA + DHA.
      • Walker R.E.
      • Jackson K.H.
      • Tintle N.L.
      • et al.
      Predicting the effects of supplemental EPA and DHA on the omega-3 index.
      This would equate to a daily intake of 3 ounces of salmon, 5 standard 1-gram fish oil capsules, or 2 highly concentrated 1-gram omega-3 capsules.
      GISSI-Preventione-Investigators
      Dietary supplementation with n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and vitamin E after myocardial infarction: results of the GISSI-Prevenzione trial. Gruppo Italiano per lo studio della Sopravvivenza nell’infarto miocardico.
      Trials of combined EPA/DHA using these doses or higher are needed to assess the effects in primary and secondary prevention studies.

      Other Omega-3 Benefits

      An accumulating body of data shows that omega-3 fatty acids from fish and seafood lower TG levels, decrease risk for CVD mortality, inhibit atherosclerotic plaque growth, improve endothelial function, reduce resting heart rate, improve heart rate variability, and possibly lower risk of sudden cardiac death.
      • Harris W.S.
      • von Schacky C.
      The Omega-3 Index: a new risk factor for death from coronary heart disease?.
      • Yokoyama M.
      • Origasa H.
      • Matsuzaki M.
      • et al.
      Effects of eicosapentaenoic acid on major coronary events in hypercholesterolaemic patients (JELIS): a randomised open-label, blinded endpoint analysis.
      • Heydari B.
      • Abdullah S.
      • Pottala J.V.
      • et al.
      Effect of omega-3 acid ethyl esters on left ventricular remodeling after acute myocardial infarction: the OMEGA-REMODEL randomized clinical trial.
      OMEGA-REMODEL was a recent RCT composed of 358 patients with acute MI who were randomized to either omega-3 (3.36 grams/day of EPA + DHA) or placebo for the first 6 months post-MI. Omega-3s significantly improved left ventricular ejection fraction (LVEF) P=.07 and LV end systolic volume (P=.007), and nonsignificantly reduced infarct size (P=.27) (Figure 6), and these benefits showed a dose-response relationship with the rise of the Omega Index values.
      Figure thumbnail gr6
      Figure 6Primary and secondary end points in REMODEL. Omega-3 group (blue bars) and placebo arm (green bars). Changes from baseline to 6 months post-MI. Measurements derived from MRI indicates LVEF; LVESVI; and omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil. Adapted from Circulation, with permission.
      • Heydari B.
      • Abdullah S.
      • Pottala J.V.
      • et al.
      Effect of omega-3 acid ethyl esters on left ventricular remodeling after acute myocardial infarction: the OMEGA-REMODEL randomized clinical trial.
      LVEF = left ventricular ejection fraction; LVESVI = left ventricular end-systolic volume index; MI = myocardial infarction; MRI = magnetic resonance imaging.
      Studies consistently report that marine omega-3s are helpful for reducing risks of preterm birth, low birth-weight babies, and perinatal morbidity.
      • Middleton P.
      • Gomersall J.C.
      • Gould J.F.
      • Shepherd E.
      • Olsen S.F.
      • Makrides M.
      Omega-3 fatty acid addition during pregnancy.
      Omega-3s may also be helpful to decrease abdominal obesity, preserve muscle mass, ameliorate muscle pain after exercise, reduce cerebral atrophy, boost mood, and dampen systemic inflammation.
      • Aung T.
      • Halsey J.
      • Kromhout D.
      • et al.
      Associations of omega-3 fatty acid supplement use with cardiovascular disease risks: meta-analysis of 10 trials involving 77,917 individuals.
      • O'Keefe Jr., J.H.
      • Abuissa H.
      • Sastre A.
      • Steinhaus D.M.
      • Harris W.S.
      Effects of omega-3 fatty acids on resting heart rate, heart rate recovery after exercise, and heart rate variability in men with healed myocardial infarctions and depressed ejection fractions.
      • Rimm E.B.
      • Appel L.J.
      • Chiuve S.E.
      • et al.
      Seafood long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and cardiovascular disease: a science advisory from the American Heart Association.
      • Blasko I.
      Interaction of ω-3 fatty acids with B vitamins in slowing the progression of brain atrophy: identifying the elderly at risk.
      The benefits of marine long chain fatty acids may turn out to be greater in specific subsets of patients, such as those with systolic dysfunction,
      • O'Keefe J.H.
      • Jacob D.
      • Lavie C.J.
      Omega-3 fatty acid therapy: the tide turns for a fish story.
      • Mason R.P.
      • Dawoud H.
      • Jacob R.F.
      • Sherratt S.C.R.
      Eicosapentaenoic acid improves endothelial function and nitric oxide bioavailability in a manner that is enhanced in combination with a statin.
      • Mehra M.R.
      • Lavie C.J.
      • Ventura H.O.
      • Milani R.V.
      Fish oils produce anti-inflammatory effects and improve body weight in severe heart failure.
      low levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the cell membranes, and African Americans, although this will need to be clarified in future RCTs.

      Omega-3 Recommendations

      Unfortunately, approximately 90% of Americans do not consume the recommended amount of fish and/or omega-3.
      • Tavazzi L.
      • Maggioni A.P.
      • Marchioli R.
      • et al.
      Effect of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in patients with chronic heart failure (the GISSI-HF trial): a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.
      • Aung T.
      • Halsey J.
      • Kromhout D.
      • et al.
      Associations of omega-3 fatty acid supplement use with cardiovascular disease risks: meta-analysis of 10 trials involving 77,917 individuals.
      Fish rich in omega-3s include salmon, herring, trout, sardines, and albacore tuna; cod, catfish, tilapia, scallops, lobster, mussels, and shrimp contain omega-3s, but only in small amounts. There are 4 types of fish—shark, swordfish, tilefish, and king mackerel—that often contain elevated levels of mercury, which potentially could be neurotoxic, particularly for infants and adults who consume very large amounts of fish and seafood. On the other hand, methylmercury (the type of mercury in marine life) is water soluble and mostly in the muscle of the fish; thus, it is not present in meaningful amounts in the oils of fish, particularly in refined and concentrated omega-3 products.
      In May 2018, the AHA released an updated Scientific Advisory on the benefits of consuming marine omega-3s, preferably by eating 1 to 2 seafood meals per week.
      • Rimm E.B.
      • Appel L.J.
      • Chiuve S.E.
      • et al.
      Seafood long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and cardiovascular disease: a science advisory from the American Heart Association.
      The initial AHA advisory
      • Kris-Etherton P.M.
      • Harris W.S.
      • Appel L.J.
      Fish consumption, fish oil, omega-3 fatty acids, and cardiovascular disease.
      on this topic (released 16 years ago and was co-authored by Harris, a co-author of this review) emphasized the benefit of at least 2 servings per week of fish high in omega-3. The AHA continues to endorse omega-3 as a nutrient that reduces risk of heart failure, CHD, ischemic stroke, and sudden cardiac death.
      • Rimm E.B.
      • Appel L.J.
      • Chiuve S.E.
      • et al.
      Seafood long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and cardiovascular disease: a science advisory from the American Heart Association.
      The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend adults consume fish and/or seafood at least twice per week, totaling 8 to 10 ounces or more of fish plus seafood per week, preferably in place of other protein foods such as meat, poultry, or eggs.
      • Millen B.
      • Lichtenstein A.H.
      • Abrams S.
      • et al.
      2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
      The omega-3 products used in REDUCE-IT, VITAL, and ASCEND were FDA-approved pharmaceuticals. Whether taking EPA + DHA in similar doses from fish-oil supplements would have produced similar effects is unclear, as these products have rarely been used in major RCTs. Nevertheless, when given at similar doses, pharmaceutical and dietary-supplement omega-3 products affect the Omega-3 Index equivalently,
      • Hedengran A.
      • Szecsi P.B.
      • Dyerberg J.
      • Harris W.S.
      • Stender S.
      n-3 PUFA esterified to glycerol or as ethyl esters reduce non-fasting plasma triacylglycerol in subjects with hypertriglyceridemia: a randomized trial.
      and oily fish intake has clearly been linked with reduced risk of CVD.
      • Rimm E.B.
      • Appel L.J.
      • Chiuve S.E.
      • et al.
      Seafood long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and cardiovascular disease: a science advisory from the American Heart Association.
      So even though there can be significant differences among encapsulated omega-3 formulations,
      • Mason R.P.
      • Sherratt S.C.R.
      Omega-3 fatty acid fish oil dietary supplements contain saturated fats and oxidized lipids that may interfere with their intended biological benefits.
      it is not unreasonable to assume that equivalent doses of EPA + DHA—from whatever source—should have similar effects on risk of CVD.
      • Zibaeenezhad M.J.
      • Ghavipisheh M.
      • Attar A.
      • Aslani A.
      Comparison of the effect of omega-3 supplements and fresh fish on lipid profile: a randomized, open-labeled trial.

      Conclusion

      In recent years, many people ceased omega-3 supplementation after a run of publicity suggested no benefit for fish oil. It now appears that these studies were either too small or studied populations already consuming high levels of omega-3 in their diets or did not provide a high-enough dose of EPA/DHA to achieve cardioprotective omega-3 levels. With REDUCE-IT, ASCEND, and VITAL, we now have a clearer picture of the potential long-term benefits that can accrue from taking EPA alone or combined EPA/DHA. For people who do not routinely consume at least 2 fish meals per week, an omega-3 product is a reasonable option. Taking an omega-3 product that supplies between 500 to 4000 mg per day of EPA + DHA appears to be an effective, safe, and affordable strategy for improving long-term CV health, particularly for high-risk persons who have elevated TG levels and for people who do not consume fish regularly.

      Supplemental Online Material

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