MUNICH, Germany — With few effective treatment options for heart failure, recent reports in the news about fish oil supplements are encouraging. The condition occurs when the heart becomes enlarged and cannot pump blood efficiently around the body.
"This reinforces the idea that treating patients with heart failure takes more than just drugs," said Dr. Jose Gonzalez Juanatey, a spokesman for the European Society of Cardiology. The doctor was not connected to the studies that determined the findings, which were published online in the medical journal the Lancet (thelancet.com).
Italian researchers gave nearly 3,500 patients a daily omega-3 capsule, derived from fish oils. Roughly the same number of patients were given a placebo. Patients were followed for an average of four years.
In the group of patients taking the fish oil pills, 1,981 died of heart failure or were admitted to the hospital with the problem. In the patients on placebo pills, 2,053 died or were admitted to the hospital for heart failure.
In a parallel study, the same team of Italian doctors gave 2,285 patients the drug rosuvastatin, also known as Crestor, and gave placebo pills to 2,289 people. Patients were then tracked for about four years. The doctors found little difference in heart failure rates between the two groups.
Comparing the results from both studies, the researchers concluded that fish oil is slightly more effective than the drug because the oil performed better against a placebo than did Crestor.
"It's a small benefit, but we should always be emphasizing to patients what they can do in terms of diet that might help," said Dr. Robert Bonow, chief of cardiology at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago and past president of the American Heart Association.
The studies were paid for by an Italian group of pharmaceuticals including Pfizer, Sigma Tau SpA and AstraZeneca PLC.
Fish oils also are thought to increase the body's good cholesterol levels, as well as possibly stabilizing the electrical system in heart cells, to prevent abnormal heart rhythms.
"This study changes the certainty of the evidence we have about fish oils," said Dr. Douglas Weaver, president of the American College of Cardiology.
Weaver said that guidelines in the United States would likely change to recommend that more heart patients eat more fish or take supplements. "This is a low-tech solution and could help all patients with cardiovascular problems."