The incidence of fatal and non-fatal cardiovascular disease (sudden cardiac death (SCD), myocardial infarction, others) varies, depending on conventional risk factors. However, in Western countries, like the US or Germany, incidences of fatal and non-fatal cardiovascular disease are far higher than in countries like Japan. In the present article, these differences are discussed and related to eicosapentaenoic acid (C20:5omega-3 or C20:5n-3; EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (C22:6omega-3; DHA). Dietary intake of EPA and DHA and a number of other factors determine levels of EPA and DHA in an individual--best assessed as the omega-3 index, defined as the percentage of EPA and DHA in red cells, and analyzed in a standardized fashion. A review of the literature, expanded by measurements of the omega-3 index, indicates that the risk of sudden cardiac death correlates inversely with the omega-3 index. For persons with an omega-3 index <4%, risk is tenfold, as compared to persons with an omega-3 index >8%. A similar, less-pronounced, correlation exists for non-fatal cardiovascular disease. EPA and DHA have anti-arrhythmic and anti-atherosclerotic mechanisms of action. In large-scale intervention studies, intake of EPA and DHA has been demonstrated to reduce SCD and non-fatal cardiovascular events. Assessing or recommending dietary intake of EPA and DHA does not predict the resulting omega-3 index. Taken together, the omega-3 index is a biomarker to assess a person's content of omega-3 fatty acids, and thus the risk for sudden cardiac death, as well as non-fatal cardiovascular events. EPA and DHA prevent fatal and non-fatal cardiovascular disease and complications of congestive heart failure.