Benefits Are Greater for Asian Women and Black Men and Women

Foods that contain omega 3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, chia seeds, walnuts and other foods can protect against inflammation in cardiovascular, neurological and endocrine systems.

By Karen Angelo

Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel, are known to reduce the risks of heart disease for everyone. However, a new analysis reveals that the benefits of omega-3 consumption on cardiovascular outcomes and cognitive function can differ by sex and race. 

Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences Assoc. Prof. Mahdi Garelnabi and his colleagues reviewed data from 24 studies, which included more than 700,000 individuals from several countries. 

Published recently in the peer-reviewed journal “Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology,” the analysis demonstrates that supplements of two of the three omega-3 fatty acids improved cardiometabolic outcomes of Black people as well as Asian women. In one of the studies, Black participants who took omega-3 supplements had a 77% reduction in heart attacks, compared with the total group. 

UMass Lowell's Mahdi Garelnab
Assoc. Prof. Mahdi Garelnabi found that the benefits of omega-3 consumption on cardiovascular outcomes can differ by sex and race.
“We found that in some studies, Black men who consumed omega-3 fatty acid supplements had improved outcomes compared to other ethnic groups,” says Gerelnabi, who chairs the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee of the North American Vascular Biology Organization and is the core lab director for the UMass Lowell’s Center for Population Health. “Given the prevalence of cardiovascular and cognitive decline related to omega-3 fatty acids intake documented in this review, clinical recommendations such as dietary changes could be a cost-effective way to prevent disease.” 

In the United States, one in five deaths is caused by cardiovascular disease for both men and women. In 2019, African Americans were 30 percent more likely to die from heart disease than non-Hispanic whites, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health. 

What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids provide the body with energy and protect against inflammation in the cardiovascular, neurological and endocrine systems. Specific types of omega-3s include DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), both found in fish, and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), which is found in plants. In addition to fatty fish, other foods that contain omega-3s include flaxseed, chia seeds and walnuts. 

The beneficial effect of fish appears to be due to the presence of EPA and DHA, which are found in fatty fish such as salmon, Atlantic mackerel, Atlantic herring, sardines, anchovies and tuna. 

The Benefits of Fatty Fish for Women 

In 11 of the 24 studies, the results for women were reported separately. The analysis found that Danish women eating two fatty fish servings per week had a 22% lower rate of heart attacks, compared with a 12% lower rate in men. Women in Shanghai had lower rates of death, cardiovascular death and hemorrhagic stroke, whereas men did not. The benefit appears related to blood levels of EPA and DHA. Women in the top one-fifth of omega-3 intake had lower rates of mortality and death from cardiovascular and Alzheimer’s diseases. 

“While intake of omega-3 fatty acids is known to be beneficial for heart health for everyone, when omega-3 supplements were given to a cohort of diverse subjects, some studies show that Black men and women and Asian women benefited more than the other ethnic groups,” says Garelnabi. 

Prevention of Cognitive Decline 

Some of the long-term studies that were analyzed suggest that fish intake of two portions per week was associated with a 30% reduction in Alzheimer’s disease for all populations. In randomized controlled trials of EPA and DHA supplementation, women have improved cognitive function. 

“DHA seems more beneficial than EPA, and supplementation is more beneficial when started before cognitive decline,” says Garelnabi. 

Eating Healthy Foods Is Better Than Consuming Supplements 

Although some of the study participants consumed supplements as part of the trial, the USDA, the American Heart Association and other professional organizations recommend getting proper nutrients from foods rather than supplements. However, for people with certain risk factors such as high cholesterol and blood pressure, physicians may consider prescribing supplements or a change in diet in addition to other treatments.