Omega-3 fatty acids - abundant in fish - may protect the heart from a type of scarring common in heart failure caused by years of high blood pressure, according to a Long Island medical investigator.

The discovery appears to add yet another heart condition that can be helped by fish oil, either through diet or supplements.

Dr. Martin Gerdes of New York College of Osteopathic Medicine in Old Westbury, and colleagues in South Dakota, reported their findings in Wednesday's edition of the journal Circulation.

Previous studies suggested two compounds in fish oil may help prevent coronary artery disease and lower triglycerides - fats in the bloodstream linked to artery hardening.

Scarring, known as cardiac fibrosis, Gerdes said, can't be treated because there are no medications for it; the condition worsens over time.

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Gerdes said fibrosis is common in heart failure because even though the organ's contraction may be normal, it can't relax between beats. When the heart can't relax, it can't get enough blood, exacerbating scarring.

"We have observed something very exciting," said Gerdes, whose research indicates fish oil helps stave off scarring.

Even though his research involved lab animals and cells in culture dishes, the findings are applicable to people because of differences noted between cells with and without fish oil.

Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, director of the Women's Heart Center at Manhattan's Lenox Hill Hospital, said cardiology guidelines strongly recommend at least a gram of fish oil daily. "It's anti-inflammatory, it lowers LDL cholesterol [the bad form] and stabilizes the heart muscle," she said.

In Japan, Gerdes noted, people whose diets are richest in fish have dramatically less heart disease and greater longevity.