The Important Blood Test Your Doctor Should Be Doing—Your Heart Might Need It

Updated: Oct. 12, 2017

Your cholesterol and blood pressure may be in good shape, but do you know what your omega-3 levels are? They could play a role in your heart health.

doctorOlena Yakobchuk/shutterstockWhile it’s standard for your physician to check your cholesterol, lipids, and even vitamin D levels during a routine physical, often a potentially important marker of health goes undetected: Your omega-3 fatty acid levels (omega-3 index). What’s more, while most people in a recent study knew that a balanced diet was important, the vast majority still had low levels of omega-3s. Part of the problem is your body doesn’t make its own omega-3; you have to get it from foods like fish, such as salmon, herring, and bluefin tuna. You can also get it from seeds like flax and chia, and from supplements.

The benefits of omega-3s

Omega-3s are good for your heart and your head. They have been linked to improved heart health, including lower cholesterol and a potentially lower risk of diabetes, better bone density, and are essential for your brain function. While the full benefits of omega-3s are still under study, some research suggests that your omega-3 index may be an even better predictor of longevity than cholesterol levels and a preventer of colorectal cancer. Find out more benefits of fish oil.

“Omega-3s are considered ‘essential’ because the body needs them to function but can’t create them on its own,” said Nigel Denby, RD, head of dietetics at Grub4Life in London and GNHA founding member in a press release. “They must come from dietary sources but the reality is, diet alone may not be enough, especially if you are like many people who don’t have access to fresh, quality foods and their nutritional content.”

With so many benefits, it’s no surprise that most adults surveyed knew that omega-3s are important. The recent study published in Nutrients and sponsored by the Global Nutrition and Health Alliance (GNHA), found that more than half of the 200 American and German adults queried knew that omega-3s are good for health.

Omega-3 deficiency

What is surprising, however, is that nearly all of the participants had low levels of the healthy fats in their blood. The Germans in the study fared slightly better than the Americans, but the vast majority—98 percent—of both groups had low levels of omega-3s.

Many Americans aren’t getting the recommended two to three servings of fish each week, whether they don’t like the taste or find it too expensive, says Nigel Denby, RD. If you fall into either category or simply don’t think you’re getting enough, add a supplement to your diet, he suggests. Here are foods rich in omega-3s for people who don’t like fish.

Why aren’t omega-3 levels tested?

The research findings aren’t yet conclusive on the true importance of omega-3 levels in gauging heart risk. If you’re curious about your levels, be forewarned that not many labs currently have the testing equipment, shares William S. Harris, PhD, consulting member of GNHA, and president and CEO of OmegaQuant, a company that offers an at-home test for omega-3 index levels. Ask your physician about getting tested (though it’s possible your insurance may not cover it), or consider taking OmegaQuant‘s at home test. Find out more surprising omega-3 rich foods that may add years to your life.