The study, published in the October issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, used a computer-simulated population with data from previous medical studies to estimate the public health impact of raising adults' omega-3 levels through fish oil consumption. Omega-3 was found to be more effective over the long term in preventing such deaths than the cardiac defibrillators used to revive patients' hearts when they have stopped beating.
These findings contribute to the wealth of literature surrounding omega-3's heart health benefits in the wider context of the US' number one cause of death, heart disease, which can often be prevented through lifestyle choices relating to nutrition, exercise or smoking.
In 2004, 654,092 Americans died of heart disease according to the National Center for Health Statistics - higher even than all forms of cancer combined, for which the mortality in the same year was 550,270.
Consumption of omega-3 could result in a 6.4 percent total death reduction by preventing sudden cardiac death in apparently healthy people, according to the research team led by Dr. Thomas Kottke at the Heart Center at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The researchers based their estimates for omega-3 fish oil benefits on two large studies through computer simulation. Due to the fact the study was a model, there is still no direct link proving omega-3 fatty acids prevent sudden cardiac death in apparently healthy people.
The study created a computer-generated group of people aged 30-84 and tested three scenarios on it. In one scenario, the sample population ate recommended amount of omega-3 fatty acids from fish and fish oil supplements.
In the second scenario, automated external defibrillators (AEDs) were readily available in homes and public areas. AEDs are devices used to revive individuals who have fallen into sudden cardiac arrest or to stop fatal rhythm conditions called heart arrhythmias.
In the third scenario, those in need of implantable defibrillators because of their heart failure were given them.
Although all three situations were found to reduce the risk of sudden death, consumption of omega-3 fatty acids brought about the best results.
Adequate omega-3 consumption resulted in a 6.4 percent drop in the risk of sudden death, compared with 3.3 percent through the use of implantable defibrillators, and less than one percent when AEDs were readily available, the simulation found.
The study calculated sudden death risk was most reduced by combining all three factors: an adequate consumption of omega-3, making AEDs readily available and administering implantable defibrillators for those who need them.
The authors conclude fish oils could have farther reaching preventative benefits than AEDs and implanted fibrillators.