News coverage about a flawed omega-3 study reveals truth about media's inaccurate health reporting

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 by: S. L. Baker, features writer
Tags: omega 3, studies, health news

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(NaturalNews) Scientists have conducted numerous studies ( over the past decade showing the remarkable health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids -- the kind of "good" fat found in cold water fish like salmon and some plant foods such as walnuts. Recently, Dutch researchers published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine which involved adding a small amount of marine source omega-3s to the diets of heart patients. Instead of actually reporting the details of this study and placing the findings in the context of previous scientific research, the mainstream media went, predictably, for the easy headline.

The result? Widespread inaccurate and even downright misleading headlines and sloppy reporting that hinted -- and even sometimes declared -- the Dutch study was proof omega-3s aren't so great for the heart after all.

For example, Time magazine blared: "Omega-3 May Reduce Heart Risks Less Than Thought". Another case in point: "Omega-3 Fats No Magic Answer to Heart Problems" declared U.S. News and World Report. The latter article also started off with the highly questionable statement that "Omega-3 fatty acids might not be as potent a weapon against heart disease as some research has shown, a new study suggests."

So what exactly was wrong with this coverage? It distorted the specific facts of a scientific study -- which is not only bad journalism but denies the public accurate information about medical research.

First of all, the new study does not conclude, nor prove, that "omega-3s may reduce heart risks less than thought". Instead, it shows only that a low dose of omega-3s failed to offer any additional cardiovascular protection to a very specific group of people -- those diagnosed with heart disease who had already suffered from heart attacks and who were all taking an "optimal", i.e. multi, regimen of all kinds of prescription drugs (for cholesterol, hypertension, and to prevent blood clots). The new study, as the majority of mainstream media failed to even mention, did nothing to refute previously clinically substantiated findings that omega-3s (in high enough doses) overall reduce the risk of second heart attacks as well as the risk of sudden death.

In fact, the Dutch researchers behind the new study admitted -- if reporters bothered to actually read the research thoroughly -- that one obvious explanation for their findings was that the omega-3s simply didn't do anything to override or change the combined power of all the cardiac drugs the nearly 5,000 heart patients in the study were taking.

A similar German study last year came up with the same results. And, just like the Dutch research, the German scientists' conclusions in no way negate the long-term health protective value of omega-3s for people who are not already heart patients taking multiple drugs. The head researcher of the 2009 German study, Jochen Senges, said in a media statement that while his research team could not find any additional benefits of omega-3s within a year after patients were placed on multiple heart drugs " would be incorrect to say that omega-3 fatty acids are not effective."

So what did the new Dutch research actually show? The scientists added low doses of omega-3s to four different kinds of margarines and gave them to heart patients every day for more than three years. At the end of this period, the low dose omega-3s from fish oils hadn't added any heart protection to the patients who, as stated earlier, were all taking a variety of Big Pharma prescription meds.

In fact, about 14 percent of the heart attack patients had experienced another major cardiovascular event, and some had died. Women in the study who consumed low dose fish derived omega-3s added to ALA (alpha-linolenic acid, the plant-form of omega-3s) were almost one third less likely to develop more cardiac complications. However, this was deemed to be not quite enough of an impact to be statistically significant.

Bottom line: the Dutch study showed low doses of omega-3s don't do anything to help people who already have heart disease and have had myocardial infarctions and who also take a variety of drugs.

But the research does not negate the host of previous studies that have found cardioprotective benefits at higher doses. And it certainly does not mean -- as the spurious U.S. News and World Report headline implied -- that all the well documented studies showing omega-3s do have important cardiovascular benefits were somehow just an attempt at "magic".

For a detailed analysis of what the growing body of scientific research has revealed about omega-3s and heart health, check out a study just published in the journal Thrombosis and Haemostasis that has received virtually no media attention. Among the conclusions of a team of Italian scientists from the University of Milan: omega-3 fatty acids reduce overall mortality and mortality due to heart attacks and sudden death in patients with congestive heart disease; fish oil rich in omega-3s reduces heart rate, a major risk factor for sudden death; and consuming adequate omega-3s leads to a 10 to 33 percent net decrease in triglyceride levels.

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