By TAMMY WEBBER, Associated Press Writer
CHICAGO (AP) - Women can significantly reduce their risk of heart disease by eating fish at least twice a week, researchers say in a study that found benefits similar to those previously seen in men.
It is one of three studies published this week bolstering evidence that fish oil is good for the heart.
The study of almost 85,000 women found those who ate fish two to four times weekly cut their risk of heart disease by 30 percent, compared with women who rarely ate fish. Women who ate fish five or more times weekly reduced their risk 34 percent.
Past studies showed similar benefits for men, but this was the first to look specifically at the effect in women, lead researcher Dr. Frank Hu said. A study last year found that women who ate fish two to four times weekly cut their risk of ischemic, or clot-related, strokes by 48 percent.
"It was very important to confirm that the beneficial effects of fish are also tied to women," said Hu, assistant professor of nutrition in the Harvard School of Public Health.
The findings were published in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association.
The findings add to the rapidly growing evidence of the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, which are especially plentiful in dark, oily fish such as mackerel, salmon and sardines.
Researchers examined 16 years of data on 84,688 participants in the Nurses' Health Study. The women were ages 34 to 59 and had no sign of heart disease at the outset. In the following 16 years, researchers documented 1,513 cases of heart disease, including 484 deaths and 1,029 heart attacks.
While eating fish reduced the risk of nonfatal heart attacks, it appeared even more protective against sudden death from heart failure.
Besides preventing clotting -- much as aspirin can -- omega-3 fatty acids help prevent irregular heartbeats, which can lead to sudden death, Hu said.
Similarly, a study of men with no history of heart disease -- published in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine -- found that those with the highest blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids were more than 80 percent less likely to die suddenly from heart disease.
The 17-year study involved 94 men and was led by Dr. Christine Albert, a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and an epidemiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital.
Mounting evidence about omega-3 benefits proves it is important for people to maintain a healthy diet that includes fish, said Dr. Sidney Smith, chief science officer at the American Heart Association. The association recommends two servings of fish a week.
"It does appear that a diet rich in fish and omega-3 has benefits beyond taking an aspirin a day," Smith said.
Neither study took into account the consumption of fish oil supplements. But a study in Tuesday's issue of the journal Circulation suggests that fish oil supplements reduced sudden cardiac death by 42 percent in the three months after patients had a heart attack.
Researchers stressed those findings must be confirmed, and the American Heart Association said it will not recommend supplements until there is more evidence.
Some types of fish can contain high amounts of mercury. A study released last year by the Food and Drug Administration said pregnant women and those who might become pregnant should not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish because the mercury could hurt a fetus' developing brain.