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Omega-3s from Fish the Key to Japan's Lower Heart Disease

An international team of researchers may have uncovered why the Japanese have such low rates of heart disease when compared to most other developed countries.

Their recent study found that lifestyle and diet play a significant role in heart disease risk. It suggests that high levels of omega-3 fatty acids from fish may provide the Japanese extra protection against the number one cause of death worldwide.

In the study, researchers from Japan and the United States recruited 868 men aged 40-48. Of this group, 281 were Japanese (born and live in Japan), 306 were Caucasian Americans (born and living in the US) and 281 were Japanese Americans (men of Japanese descent that were born and live in the US).

Researchers evaluated each participant using intima-media thickness (IMT) of the carotid artery and coronary artery calcification (CAC). They also measured serum fatty acid levels in the blood.

IMT measures the thickness of artery walls. Thicker artery walls are generally associated with a higher risk of heart disease so a lower IMT score indicates lower risk of heart disease. CAC is used to confirm the presence of plaque in the coronary artery, also a risk factor for heart disease.

After accounting for lifestyle factors (smoking, drinking alcohol) and health factors (cholesterol levels, diabetes, obesity) the researchers found that Japanese men had the lowest levels of heart disease while Caucasian Americans and Japanese Americans had about the same levels.

Researchers also found that the Japanese men had twice as much omega-3s in their blood as the white and Japanese Americans. They associated the increase in omega-3 levels with the lower IMT scores.

Since the Japanese American group did not experience a decrease risk in heart disease, researchers attributed lifestyle and diet were likely responsible for the lower rates among Japanese men.

The Japanese maintain a diet rich in fish, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids. That is probably why omega-3 levels amongst the Japanese group were so much higher than in the Americans.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Japanese Ministry of Education and is published in the July issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

This latest research adds to an already substantial body of evidence to support that omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in maintaining heart health. Previous studies have shown that omega-3s can improve blood flow and blood vessel elasticity, reduce bad cholesterol, and help prevent the buildup of artery plaque.

Other recent studies have shown that some fish are better than others when it comes to omega-3s, so be sure to do your homework before adding more to your diet. And be careful about contaminants like lead or mercury which are common in fish.

One easy way to safely get more omega-3s in your diet is with a quality fish oil supplement that is certified by a reputable agency to be contaminant free and rich in omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA.

Source: Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry
August 2008, Volume 32, Issue 6, Pages 1538-1544
"The effects of omega-3 fatty acids monotherapy in Alzheimer's disease and mild cognitive impairment: A preliminary randomized double-blind placebo-controlled study"
Authors: C-C. Chiu, K.-P. Su, T.-C. Cheng, H.-C. Liu, C.-J. Chang, M.E. Dewey, R. Stewart, S.-Y. Huang
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