Tim Russert: Would Fish Oils Have Saved His Life?
When Russert, the political commentator, died suddenly at the age of 58 earlier this month, people were surprised. Unfortunately, there is nothing surprising about sudden cardiac death. "More than 300,000 people die each year in the U.S. from sudden cardiac death," Dr. P.K. Shah noted1. "This is a very common scenario that plays out 900 times per day, every single day of the year."
Sudden cardiac death accounts for about half of all heart-related deaths in developed countries2. Half of the deaths occur in people with no history of heart disease. Sudden cardiac death occurs suddenly, without warning, away from hospitals. The toll is high. No one is immune.
The best treatment for sudden cardiac death is prevention.
Did Tim Russert Receive Treatment to Prevent Sudden Cardiac Death?
Russert had some signs of heart disease and was receiving standard medical treatment. Treatment included medications for reducing elevated blood pressure and elevated cholesterol. These therapies are not particularly useful in preventing sudden cardiac death.
Russert was overweight and had received counseling about losing weight and maintaining a healthy diet. Russert exercised regularly.
These efforts were not enough. Yet, in the articles I read and interviews I saw on the details on Russert's death, I did not come across a single word about his receiving a powerful, safe, and effective preventive for sudden cardiac death.
Studies Prove the Effectiveness of Omega-3 Oils (Fish Oils) in Preventing Sudden Cardiac Death
Study after study has proven the benefit of fish oils in preventing cardiac deaths. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2002 demonstrated that "omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are associated with a reduced risk of sudden death among men3." In this study, those with the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids had an 81% lower risk of sudden cardiac death than men with the lowest levels. A study published in JAMA, also in 2002, found similar benefits of fish oils in reducing cardiac deaths in women4. Another 2002 study confirmed the reduced incidence of sudden cardiac death in people taking omega-3 fatty acids5.
The landmark GISSI study was published in Lancet in 1999. It was conducted in Italy for 4 years and involved 11,000 people with recent heart attacks. These high-risk patients received 1 gram per day of fish oils or placebo. The study demonstrated that the patients receiving fish oils had significantly fewer heart attacks and strokes, and 45% fewer cardiac deaths, than those receiving placebo6.
These and many other studies have proven the benefits of fish oils in preventing sudden cardiac death. It is unfortunate that many doctors have still not gotten the word. And that their patients, like Tim Russert perhaps, do not receive this safe and effective treatment.
How Do Fish Oils Prevent Sudden Cardiac Death?
Tim Russert had a severe heart attack, but this didn't take his life. The heart attack injured the heart muscle, and this in turn disrupted the electronic circuitry of the heart. The disruption led to an irregular rhythm, known as an arrhythmia. The arrhythmia made it impossible for the heart to pump blood to the tissues. This is why Russert died.
Most sudden cardiac deaths go through a similar process: heart attack, injury, arrhythmia, death.
Omega-3 oils have a stabilizing effect on heart tissue, thereby reducing the risk of a cardiac arrhythmia. Even if a heart attack occurs, the heart is less likely to react with a life-threatening arrhythmia.
What You Can Do
Omega-3 oils are natural to the human body. They have many benefits and few risks. They are inexpensive and can be found at most health food stores.
In addition to their benefit in reducing the risk of sudden cardiac death, omega-3 oils are associated with reduced symptoms of arthritis and reduced risks of Alzheimer's disease.
Before starting on fish oils, check with your doctor and ask her opinion. Is there any reason why you should not take fish oils? Fish oils can reduce clotting, so be sure to get your doctor's input if you take a blood thinner such as warfarin or aspirin.
The major constituents of fish oils are DHA and EPA. Experts recommend taking 1,000 to 2,000 mg of DHA and EPA per day. This usually amounts to one or two fish oil capsules a day. Instead of supplements, you can eat fatty fish (salmon, tuna, sardines) two times a week. With salmon, be sure to get wild salmon (omega-3 oil levels are much lower in farmed salmon).
Fish oils can benefit people with and people without heart disease. Fish oils are unmatched in the cardiac and other benefits they can provide. Tim Russert’s doctors should have placed him on fish oils.
1. Wood S. Media mulls Russert's death as cardiologists weigh in. Heartwire, June 19, 2008:Medscape.com.
2. de Lorgeril, M, Salen, P, Defaye, P, et al. Dietary prevention of sudden cardiac death. European Heart Journal 2002;23:277-285.
3. Albert, CM, Campos, H, Stampfer, MJ, et al. Blood Levels of Long-Chain N-3 Fatty Acids and the Risk of Sudden Death. New England Journal of Medicine 2002;346(15):1113-18.
4. Hu, FB, Bronner, L, Willett, WC, et al. Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acid Intake and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in Women. JAMA 2002;287(14):1815-21.
5. Marchioli, R, Barzi, F, Bomba, E, et al. Early Protection against Sudden Death by N-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids after Myocardial Infarction. Circulation 2002;105:1897-1903.
6. Dietary supplementation with n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and vitamin E after myocardial infarction: results of the GISSI-Prevenzione trial. Lancet 1999;354(9177):447-55.
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