Omega-3 fatty acids in the blood significantly predicted a child's behavior and ability to learn
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are the most biologically important forms for cardiovascular health and immune system health but are also essential for normal development and functioning of the brain and nervous system.
Evidence from clinical trials indicates that dietary supplementation with long-chain omega-3 may improve child behavior and learning, although most previous trials have involved children with neurodevelopmental disorders such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or developmental coordination disorder (DCD), according to the study’s introduction.
Dr. Alex Richardson, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Evidence-Based Intervention and Professor Paul Montgomery Director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Intervention, from the University of Oxford and colleagues investigated whether such benefits might extend to healthy but underperforming children from the mainstream school population.
The study was open to healthy children attending any mainstream Oxfordshire primary school who were in the third, fourth or fifth year-groups. Such children are typically aged 7–9 years, although a minority is aged 6 or 10 years.
For the study blood samples were drawn from 493 children aged seven to nine years and believed to have below-average reading skills, based on national assessments at the age of seven or their teachers' current judgments.
An analysis of blood samples revealed that, on average, just under two per cent of the children's total blood fatty acids were Omega-3 DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) and 0.5 per cent were Omega-3 EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid), with a total of 2.45 per cent for these long-chain Omega-3 combined. Currently it is recommend that boys ages 9 to 13 should get 1.2 g per day and girls ages 9 to 13 should get 1.0 g per day.
Researchers found that levels of Omega-3 fatty acids in the blood significantly predicted a child's behavior and ability to learn. Higher levels of Omega-3 in the blood, and especially DHA were linked to better reading, memory and fewer behavior problems as rated by parents and teachers.
Professor Montgomery commented “these results are particularly noteworthy given that we had a restricted range of scores, especially with respect to blood DHA but also for reading ability, as around two-thirds of these children were still reading below their age-level when we assessed them. Although further research is needed, we think it is likely that these findings could be applied generally to schoolchildren throughout the UK.'
Dr. Richardson adds in 'the longer term health implications of such low blood Omega-3 levels in children obviously can't be known. But this study suggests that many, if not most UK children, probably aren't getting enough of the long-chain Omega-3 we all need for a healthy brain, heart and immune system. That gives serious cause for concern because we found that lower blood DHA was linked with poorer behavior and learning in these children.”
“'Most of the children we studied had blood levels of long-chain Omega-3 that in adults would indicate a high risk of heart disease. This was consistent with their parents' reports that most of them failed to meet current dietary guidelines for fish and seafood intake. Similarly, few took supplements or foods fortified with these Omega-3.”
The current findings build on earlier work by the same researchers, showing that dietary supplementation with Omega-3 DHA improved both reading progress and behavior in children from the general school population who were behind on their reading. their previous research has already shown benefits of supplementation with long-chain omega-3 (EPA+DHA) for children with ADHD, Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, and related conditions.
The DHA Oxford Learning and Behavior (DOLAB) Studies have now extended these findings to children from the general school population.
In the DOLAB study the researchers write in their conclusion “DHA supplementation appears to offer a safe and effective way to improve reading and behavior in healthy but underperforming children from mainstream schools. Replication studies are clearly warranted, as such children are known to be at risk of low educational and occupational outcomes in later life.”
The authors believe these findings may be relevant to the general UK population. The researcher’s caution that these findings may not apply to more ethnically diverse populations as some genetic differences can affect how Omega-3 fatty acids are metabolized. Most of the children participating in this study were white British.
These findings are published in the journal PLOS One.