New Insights into Mechanisms of Action for Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Atherothrombotic Cardiovascular Disease

Curr Atheroscler Rep. 2019 Jan 12;21(1):2. doi: 10.1007/s11883-019-0762-1.


Purpose of review: Treatment of hypercholesterolemia with statins results in significant reductions in cardiovascular risk; however, individuals with well-controlled low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) levels, but persistent high triglycerides (TG), remain at increased risk. Genetic and epidemiologic studies have shown that elevated fasting TG levels are associated with incident cardiovascular events. At effective doses, omega-3 fatty acids, such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), lower TG levels but may have additional atheroprotective properties compared to other TG-lowering therapies such as niacin and fibrates. The purpose of this review is to evaluate mechanisms related to the potential benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in atherothrombotic disease.

Recent findings: Large randomized clinical trials are currently under way to test the cardiovascular benefits of omega-3 fatty acids at a pharmacologic dosage (4 g/day). A large randomized trial with a prescription EPA-only formulation was shown to reduce a composite of cardiovascular events by 25% in statin-treated patients with established cardiovascular disease or diabetes and other CV risk factors. EPA and DHA have distinct tissue distributions as well as disparate effects on membrane structure and lipid dynamics, rates of lipid oxidation, and signal transduction pathways. Compared to other TG-lowering therapies, EPA has been found to inhibit cholesterol crystal formation, inflammation, and oxidative modification of atherogenic lipoprotein particles. The anti-inflammatory and endothelial benefits of EPA are enhanced in combination with a statin. Omega-3 fatty acids like EPA only at a pharmacologic dose reduce fasting TG and interfere with mechanisms of atherosclerosis that results in reduced cardiovascular events. Additional mechanistic trials will provide further insights into their role in reducing cardiovascular risk in subjects with well-managed LDL-C but elevated TG levels.

Keywords: Atherosclerosis; Cholesterol; Eicosapentaenoic; Lipoproteins; Omega-3 fatty acids; Triglycerides.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Atherosclerosis / drug therapy*
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism
  • Cholesterol, LDL / metabolism
  • Coronary Thrombosis / drug therapy*
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids / metabolism
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids / therapeutic use*
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid / metabolism
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid / therapeutic use*
  • Endothelial Cells / metabolism
  • Fenofibrate / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Hydroxymethylglutaryl-CoA Reductase Inhibitors / therapeutic use
  • Hypercholesterolemia / drug therapy*
  • Hypertriglyceridemia / drug therapy*
  • Niacin / therapeutic use
  • Risk Factors
  • Triglycerides / adverse effects
  • Triglycerides / metabolism


  • Cholesterol, LDL
  • Hydroxymethylglutaryl-CoA Reductase Inhibitors
  • Triglycerides
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids
  • Niacin
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid
  • Fenofibrate