Consuming omega-3 fatty acids is one of the best things you can do for your heart, and this has been established in numerous studies. Research shows that people who eat more fish rich in omega-3’s have lower rates of heart problems and have a lower risk of dying from heart disease compared to those who eat less.
A recent study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, backs those claims. The authors discovered that a highly purified version of omega-3 fats, called icosapent ethyl, can slash the risk of heart problems, including heart attack, stroke, and angina. It can also reduce a person’s risk of dying from heart problems, the study shows.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved icosapent ethyl to treat exceedingly-high triglyceride levels. The omega-3 fat is sold in prescription capsules known as Vascepa.
A previous study showed that people with high cholesterol levels who took Vascepa to lower their triglyceride levels, along with a cholesterol-lowering statin drug, had a 19% lower risk of suffering a major heart event compared to those who only took a statin.
However, due to that study’s lack of a rigorous control arm, the research was considered questionable by experts. The researchers behind the recent study sought to determine whether or not icosapent ethyl could actually do what the previous study had claimed, so they created the REDUCE-IT trial, which involved randomly assigning people to receive the omega-3 capsules or placebo.
All of the participants were taking statins to lower their cholesterol and prevent either a first or repeat heart attack or stroke. About 7 in 10 individuals in the study had hardened arteries, while the rest had diabetes and at least 1 other heart risk factor. 
The researchers followed more than 8,000 men and women for an average of 5 years. After the follow-up period ended, the team found that people taking omega-3’s had a 20% lower risk of heart-related death, a 31% lower risk of heart attack, and a 28% reduced risk of stroke compared to the placebo group.
Note: the study was supported by Amarin Pharma, the makers of Vascepa. 
Dr. Deepak Bhatt, executive director of interventional cardiovascular programs at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and lead author of the paper, said:
“What surprised me was that there were a bunch of things that were favorably influenced by the omega-3 drug that we wouldn’t expect. This drug is affecting multiple different endpoints. I can’t think of another cardiovascular drug that hits all those different types of endpoints.”
One of the more surprising findings of the study for Bhatt was that people taking Vascepa showed lower rates of stroke. Another fascinating discovery was that the participants taking the drug had lower rates of stenting and bypass surgery, which is necessary for opening blocked blood vessels in the heart.
The authors hypothesize that omega-3’s may reduce heart risks by stabilizing cell membranes, thus lowering the risk of irregular heartbeats and sudden cardiac arrest. It’s also possible that omega-3’s prevent or eat away at plaques that build up within heart vessel walls that can eventually rupture and cause a heart attack.
I’m sure future research will reveal even more untapped benefits of fish oil on the body.
Be Wary of Fish Oil Supplements
But if you’re hoping to get the same benefits from the fish oil supplements on your local pharmacy’s shelves, don’t waste your money. Bhatt said that over-the-counter omega-3 supplements contain varying doses of different types of omega-3 fatty acids. What’s more, some may be low quality or contaminated. So fish oil supplements shouldn’t be your go-to unless you’ve done your research.
The drug used in the study is a specific formulation of purified eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) that is only available by prescription.
“It would really be a mistake to extrapolate these results to fish oil supplements in general. There have been a number of studies done with mixed EPA and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) preparations that have found no heart benefit.”
If you’re a healthy adult but you want to further reduce your risk of heart disease, the best way to get additional omega-3 fatty acids is through food. 
Dr. Helene Glassberg, an associate professor of clinical cardiovascular medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Medicine, who was not involved with the study, said:
“Get it in your diet if you can, from omega-3 fatty fish like salmon or sardines. That’s the place to start because these are natural. This is the best way to get it and not spend $30 on a bottle of supplements at a health food store.”