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A daily handful of walnuts may lower fatal heart attack risk

A new study tracked almost 46,000 people for 10 years, measuring their blood levels for a special nutrient.
/ Source: TODAY

A serving of fatty fish twice a week or gobbling down a handful of walnuts every day might save your life, a new study suggests.

Good sources of Omega-3
Good sources of omega 3 and unsaturated fats include fish and walnuts.Kerdkanno / Shutterstock

An international team of researchers found that people with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their bodies have a lower risk of dying from a heart attack, according to the report published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The new research measured the various types of omega-3 fatty acids in blood and tissue of 45,637 people from 16 countries.

During an average of 10 years follow-up there were 2,781 fatal and 7,157 non-fatal heart attacks. When the researchers analyzed people’s omega-3 levels and heart health, they found moderate levels of the nutrient were associated with a 10 percent lower risk of death from heart attacks.

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The news is even better if you consume more foods with omega-3 fatty acids, said the study’s lead author Liana Del Gobbo, a researcher at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

“If you went from eating almost no fish to eating a lot, it’s more like a 23 or 24 percent lower risk of dying from a heart attack,” Del Gobbo said.

The new study looked not just at omega-3 fatty acids from fish, but also from plants, like canola oil, walnuts and flax seeds.

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Just how much you need to consume is still being studied. But “eating a handful of walnuts, which is one serving, a day” would be adequate, said Del Gobbo. “Adding a tablespoon of ground flax seeds to your diet is another option."

Earlier studies, including those in which heart patients were randomly assigned fish oil supplements or placebos, have yielded mixed results. Part of the problem may have been the length of those studies and the type of patients included, Del Gobbo said. The clinical trials, which typically lasted only a few months to a few years, gave fish oil supplements to patients who already had cardiovascular disease or who were at very high risk.

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“In our study, people were consuming omega-3s predominantly from foods,” she said.

The new study is an association between higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and a lower risk of fatal heart attacks, not cause-and-effect, said Dr. Gregg Fonarow, the Eliot Corday Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-director of the UCLA preventive cardiology program. "These types of observational studies, no matter how large, are unable to establish cause and effect relationships,” he said.

And the benefit from the omega-3s is "modest."

Still, Fonarow said, "these data along with clinical trials reinforce current recommendations."

The American Heart Association recommends eating fish — especially fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardine which are high in omega-3s — at least twice a week.