Lipids and cardiovascular/metabolic health

Early-onset coronary atherosclerosis in patients with low levels of omega-3 fatty acids



Coronary artery calcification (CAC) can reliably predict cardiovascular events. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are thought to inhibit vascular calcification on a cellular level and in animal models, however, the correlation in humans is controversial.


In symptomatic patients, CAC was quantified according to Agatstons’ method using non-contrast coronary CT. We assessed the association of EPA and DHA with early-onset coronary atherosclerosis, defined as presence of CAC above the 75th Agatston-Score (AS) percentile in sex adjusted age categories. Erythrocyte fatty acid composition was analyzed with a standardized methodology. The percentage of EPA and DHA in relation to all fatty acids present in the erythrocyte membrane is regarded the Omega-3 Index®.


Among 71 patients, 51 were below and 20 were above the 75th AS-percentile. No differences were seen in age, gender, cardiovascular risk factors, and relevant medication. In univariable analysis, significantly lower values for EPA (0.77%[0.63; 0.97] vs. 0.93%[0.72; 1.21]; p = 0.045), DHA (4.90%[4.12; 5.57] vs. 5.50%[4.58; 6.52]; p = 0.038) and the Omega-3 Index (5.73%[4.75; 6.35] vs. 6.22%[5.46; 7.71]; p = 0.034) were seen in patients above the 75th AS-percentile. All other fatty acids showed no significant differences. In multivariable analysis, the Omega-3 Index showed a significant inverse association with early onset of CAC (OR: 0.533 (95%CI: 0.303–0.938; p = 0.029)), independent of age, gender, statin use, and creatinine level (all p > 0.05).


Low levels of EPA and DHA (Omega-3 Index) are associated with early-onset coronary atherosclerosis. This finding needs to be validated in larger cohorts and might help understand the beneficial cardiovascular effects of omega-3 fatty acids.

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Fig. 1: Gas chromatographically quantification of erythrocyte fatty acid composition.


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Correspondence to D. O. Bittner.

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MM reports honoraria from Siemens HealthCare and Edwards Lifescience outside the submitted work, and YZ reports lecture fees from Baxter, MSD and Shire outside the submitted work. The other authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Bittner, D.O., Goeller, M., Zopf, Y. et al. Early-onset coronary atherosclerosis in patients with low levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Eur J Clin Nutr (2020) doi:10.1038/s41430-019-0551-5

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