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Life Extension Magazine April 2013
As We See It  

Science by Ambush

By William Faloon
William Faloon
William Faloon

In 1938,Orson Welles’ fictional broadcast of Earth being invaded by Martians was aired on CBS Radio. The resulting hysteria drove over a million Americans to flee into hiding or force open armories so citizens could defend against the attacking space monsters.

CBS’s on-air dramatization of the H.G. Wells novel “War of the Worlds” is history’s most effective manipulation (by a single broadcast) of the perception of reality in the consciousness of the masses.

This kind of chaos is not confined to last century. In September 2012, the American Medical Association published a study by three Greek doctors that proclaimed there is no value to recommending omega-3 supplements to cardiac patients.1

Consumers were misled as the media inaccurately represented the study’s findings. This manipulation of reality will cause millions of needless deaths throughout the world if not retracted.

I titled this piece “Science by Ambush because the media turned this flawed report into headline news and, in the process, failed to include an objective rebuttal.

This article will expose flaws that discredit this study’s conclusions, the media’s inappropriate portrayal of this study, the public’s lack of knowledge about how to use omega-3s, and the inability of most people to understand that the successful treatment of atherosclerotic disease requires more than one intervention.

American Medical Association Attack on Fish Oil

heartbeat/heartattack  

The September 12, 2012, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association published a data analysis of 20 self-selected prior studies on fish oil and vascular disease.

Their findings showed that in response to a modest daily intake of fish oil (only 1,370 milligrams of EPA/DHA), the following positive effects were observed: 1

  • 9% reduction in cardiac death
  • 13% reduction in sudden death
  • 11% reduction in myocardial infarction (heart attack)
  • 4% reduction in all-cause mortality

The authors of this study claimed that the data they assembled did not have “statistically significant association” and therefore no likely benefits were observed in the 20 studies they reviewed where a modest dose of fish oil was used for a short treatment term (median 2 years).

Not all participants in this analysis took fish oil capsules. Some of the estimated daily EPA/DHA intake was based on food guidance counseling. Omitted from the authors’ analysis were studies showing more robust heart attack reduction in response to higher doses of fish oil used by enlightened consumers today.

The authors nonetheless concluded that their observations “do not justify the use of omega-3 as a structured intervention in everyday clinical practice or guidelines supporting dietary omega-3 administration.”1

The Raging Inferno

If you had to rely on the media’s sensationalist reporting of the study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), you might think there is no value to omega-3 supplementation.

Yet the JAMA study itself reported on published benefits of fish oil as follows: 1

  • Substantial reduction in triglycerides (even the FDA recognizes this benefit).
  • Reduction in serious arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat).
  • Decreased platelet aggregation (protects against clots forming in arteries).
  • Modest reduction in blood pressure.

There are other ways that fish oil helps prevent heart attack, such as protecting against inflammation, but just the four benefits outlined in the JAMA study itself provide a scientific rationale for anyone concerned about vascular health to ensure adequate omega-3 intake.

What most physicians do not understand, however, is the magnitude of damage that is already present in the inner arterial lining of cardiac patients. These patients already suffered a heart attack or developed problems that required intervention with stents, bypass surgery, and/or aggressive drug therapy, and thus had significant pre-existing arterial disease.

In my previous career, I was involved in thousands of autopsy cases where I could see and feel the effects of aging in the form of blocked and hardened arteries throughout a deceased person’s body. There was often such severe arterial occlusion that my colleagues would question how the person lived as long as they did.

Arterial disease begins at birth and progresses as we mature. Over a certain age, many people become victims of “accelerated atherosclerosis” whereby a coronary artery that was only 30% occluded three years earlier rapidly becomes 90–100% blocked.

What is remarkable is how much damage can be inflicted to our vital circulatory system before death ensues. The point I’m getting at is that by the time people manifest outward signs of vascular disease (such as needing a coronary stent), there is a raging inferno going on inside their arterial walls that is not going to be extinguished with fish oil alone.

Most of the subjects in these studies analyzed by JAMA had already suffered a heart attack or coronary artery blockage and the fish oil was being used for “secondary prevention” purposes. At this advanced stage, the window had long ago closed for a modest dose of any treatment to be effective.

To clarify, let’s say you are barbecuing outdoors and you accidentally ignite a bush next to your house. You turn your garden hose on full blast and rapidly extinguish the fire. Based on your experience, you can categorically state that garden hoses are effective in preventing houses from burning down.

Now let’s say you come home and find your house engulfed in flames. You take your garden hose and turn it only half-way on, but your house burns to the ground anyway. At that point you state that garden hoses are useless in preventing houses from being destroyed by fire.

While there is solid evidence to document that fish oil is more effective than a garden hose in this analogy, what JAMA has in essence published are selected efforts of mainstream doctors using an inadequate dose of fish oil, over too short a time period, to put out a raging inferno going on inside the arteries of cardiac patients.

Comparison With Statin Drugs

By reducing LDL cholesterol, statin drugs have been shown to lower heart attack risk.2

A healthy person without arterial disease can sometimes get by with using a modest dose (10 mg/day) of a drug like simvastatin. Along with healthier dietary patterns, this can slash LDL levels from a dangerous 140 mg/dL to the safe range for healthy people now recognized to be under 100 mg/dL.

This dose of statin drug, however, will not reduce LDL-C levels aggressively enough for those with pre-existing arterial disease. These individuals need to get their LDL under 70 mg/dL, which, in the example cited, may require a daily dose of simvastatin of 80 mg per day. It is at these high doses that statin drugs inflict most of their nasty side effects.

Since the medical establishment recommends that those with pre-existing arterial disease take higher doses of statin drugs, it is ludicrous to think that a modest dose of fish oil would show a significant effect on the relatively unhealthy patient populations analyzed in the JAMA report.

How Much EPA/DHA Should Be Consumed Each Day?

cardiovascular system  

About 60% of your brain mass consists of fats that comprise vital cell membranes.3 DHA is the dominant omega-3 fat in healthy brain cells. Since people cannot make DHA internally, it has to come from diet or supplemental sources.

For the JAMA authors to state that there is no place in clinical practice to encourage omega-3 intake borders on medical negligence. The fact that they hand-selected studies where inadequate doses of omega-3s were used hints at a sizeable bias against non-drug approaches to treating disease.

Based on the totality of evidence showing multiple health benefits associated with greater omega-3 intake, Life Extension® long ago recommended that members should supplement with 2,400 mg of EPA/DHA each day. This recommendation was based on the three assumptions listed on the next page.

  1. Foundation members are health-conscious individuals who consume food sources of omega-3s like cold-water fish, thus providing greater average intake of omega-3 than 2,400 mg daily.
  2. Foundation members take annual blood tests that measure triglyceride levels. If triglycerides are over 100 mg/dL of blood, there would be a greater consumption of omega-3s, along with lifestyle, drug, and other supplement alterations. (Some people, for instance, require daily doses of 4,800 mg of EPA/DHA to suppress artery-clogging triglycerides.)
  3. Findings from Omega Score blood test results show that at least 2,400 mg a day of EPA/DHA is needed to achieve optimal omega-3 blood levels. (Some people require more than 2,400 mg of omega-3s to boost blood levels.)

The media used the JAMA study to create headlines like “Fish oil supplements don’t prevent heart attacks, study says.4 The JAMA report, however, was based on an average daily intake of only 1,370 mg of EPA/DHA in individuals who mostly suffered significant pre-existing arterial disease, i.e., atherosclerosis. In fact, half of the studies included in the meta-analysis used an omega-3 dose of less than 1,000 mg daily. This amount of EPA/DHA is too low to reverse the underlying progression of atherosclerosis that most of the study group suffered.

The unhealthy study subjects used in the JAMA study consisted of population groups in countries throughout the world. Based on what the JAMA authors wrote, these study subjects presumably consumed less than 58% of the minimum amount of EPA/DHA that Life Extension members take. Some of these population groups took no other supplement to protect against heart attack since these nutrients are not openly sold in those countries.

I use the term “presumably consumed” in the previous paragraph because it is not clear that study subjects even got 58% of the EPA/DHA they needed. The JAMA study results were based either on patients instructed to take fish oil capsules or patients provided with “dietary guidance counseling.” This kind of diet counseling is notoriously unreliable, especially over the longer term when people tend to gravitate back to unhealthy dietary habits. The same is often true of people who are told to swallow large fish oil capsules by their doctors but fail to comply for all kinds of reasons including the fact that they don’t like swallowing large capsules!

As you will read in the sidebar on page 13, the findings from the JAMA study (where lower-dose EPA/DHA was inconsistently used on unhealthy patient groups for a relative short term) have nothing to do with what health-conscious people are doing today to guard against heart attack, which includes taking the proper dose of EPA/DHA each day.

Why Most Consumers Don’t Benefit From Fish Oil

hand drawing a blood sample tube  

The environment that we at Life Extension exist in is far removed from the mainstream. We are privileged to interact with exceptional physician/scientists and the world’s most knowledgeable health consumers (i.e., our members).

Recently, we found ourselves so out of touch with the mainstream that we went to considerable expense to empanel outside focus groups to educate us on how the lay public thinks about nutrition and their health. To participate in these focus groups, people had to be health-conscious consumers who used dietary supplements. The level of ignorance uncovered by these focus group sessions was appalling.

Virtually all the focus group participants had “heard” good things about omega-3s, but they had no idea how much they were taking or how much EPA/DHA they should use. Most of them claimed to purchase omega-3 supplements on a somewhat irregular basis, usually when they saw them displayed on a pharmacy or supermarket shelf. Some claimed to take one fish oil capsule daily while others claimed to take them when they would remember.

If a survey were conducted to identify people who took omega-3 supplements, virtually every participant in these focus groups would have been categorized as an omega-3 supplement user. Yet virtually none of them were taking the potency needed to stave off heart disease.

When conventional doctors and the media claim that people don’t benefit from supplements, they are often correct in that most consumers have no idea how much of what supplement they should take to stave off disease. This should not dissuade knowledgeable individuals, who know what to take and have the discipline to do so on a consistent basis, from following an evidence-based program that includes at least 2,400 mg of supplemental EPA/DHA daily along with healthy dietary patterns.

Methodology Problems with the JAMA Meta-Analysis
Scientist using a microscope

Flaws in the design of the JAMA meta-analysis of 20 self-selected studies call its findings into question for the following reasons:

Inclusion of trials of poor methodological quality. Nearly half of the sample size of the meta-analysis came from two open-label trials. Open-label trials allow both the subjects and researchers to know what treatment is being provided in the study. This type of study is considered to be of inferior quality compared to double-blind, placebo-controlled trials, where researchers and subjects do not know which intervention the subjects are receiving.

High level of variability in the trials’ cardiovascular event rates & baseline risk. There was a high degree of variability in the baseline cardiovascular risk and cardiovascular event rates in the trials included in this meta-analysis. This means it was difficult to assess which subjects were at greater risk of heart attack at baseline. If those given fish oil, for instance, also had higher vascular risk at the beginning of the study, then the validity of the data is severely compromised.

Limited number of studies included. Only 20 of 3,635 studies the authors examined were used in this meta-analysis. This provides a very limited view of the research that has been conducted on fish oil for cardiovascular disease.

There has been a significant amount of research conducted on the cardiovascular benefits of fish oil beyond what was selected for the JAMA analysis. For example, in a PubMed.gov (U.S. National Library of Medicine) search for clinical trials of “fish oil and triglycerides,” there were over 500 results.

Good Ratings for the Media

Just imagine being in the “news” business where every day you have to generate attention-grabbing headlines to sell newspapers or attract viewers.

You see a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association meant for doctors, but since it relates to a popular dietary supplement, you have a sound-bite headline for the day. No need to look at details — such as the JAMA study stating that even subjects who consumed inadequate doses of fish oil appeared to derive some reductions in heart attack risk.       

Just hype up the JAMA study’s conclusion and you have yourself a startling headline that most of your audience will want to know more about, i.e. ambush journalism.

This is how the general public makes their life-and-death decisions, which is rather pathetic considering we live in a world where most everyone has Internet access to assess the facts for themselves.

Bottom Line: The subjects in the JAMA report were people with existing heart problems, the dosages they were taking were too small, and they probably were not taking the additional supplements that have long been recommended to generate a multi-pronged attack against heart disease.

What Do Humans Need To Do To Prevent Atherosclerosis?

Illustration of branches of a coronary artery on the surface of the heart  

The aging process damages blood vessels even when conventional risk factors such as cholesterol and blood pressure are within normal ranges.

Despite aggressive intervention with diet, exercise, supplements, and drugs, pathological changes still occur in the arterial wall that predispose aging adults to vascular diseases. The encouraging news is that validated methods have been developed to address the underlying reason why arteries become occluded as people reach the later stages of their lives.

For the past 40 years, the standard way to treat coronary atherosclerosis has been to bypass the blocked arteries. Recuperation from coronary bypass surgery can take months, and some patients are afflicted with lifetime impairments such as memory loss, chronic inflammation, and depression. Coronary artery stenting has become more common in recent years, but this is not a cure for systemic atherosclerosis.

The scientific literature reveals that atherosclerosis is associated with high blood levels of C-reactive protein,18-26 insulin,27-32 iron,33-36 LDL,37-42 homocysteine,25,26,43-46 fibrinogen,25,47-50 and triglycerides,51-53 along with low levels of HDL54-56 and testosterone57-62 (in men). Optimizing blood levels of these substances can dramatically reduce heart attack and stroke risk.