Higher blood levels of long-chain omega-3s, and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) in particular, were associated with better reading and working memory performance, according to a new observational study conducted at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. Lead researchers indicated that an increased dietary intake of omega-3s may be beneficial for healthy children aged 7 to 9 years who are underperforming in school.

The paper titled, “Low blood long chain omega-3 fatty acids in UK children are associated with poor cognitive performance and behavior: A large cross-sectional analysis from the DOLAB study,” was recently published in the peer-reviewed PLOS ONE journal. The observational analysis was an independent study initiated at the University of Oxford and funded by a grant from DSM Nutritional Products.

Cross-sectional observational studyResearchers set out to explore the association between blood omega-3 levels and children’s reading, working memory and behavior. The study’s population included 493 healthy children aged 7 to 9 years recruited from mainstream state schools in Oxfordshire, U.K. underperforming in literacy skills, but with other abilities within the normal range.

Findings at a glance:

  • Blood samples, taken through the first-ever finger stick test administered to children in the U.K., revealed that the sample population had on average a blood fatty acid level of 1.90 percent of DHA and 0.55 percent of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) with a total of 2.46 percent combined DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids – this is below a minimum of 4 percent recommended by leading scientists to maintain cardiovascular health in adults, the researchers reported;
  • Lower DHA concentrations were associated with poorer reading ability (p=<.042) and working memory performance (p=<.001);
  • Lower DHA was associated with higher levels of parent-rated oppositional behavior (p=<.0001) and emotional lability (p=<.0001);
  • Researchers looked at the diet of each child and found that 88.2 percent of children ate fish less than twice a week and 9 percent did not eat fish at all, as reported by their parents.

Reading was accessed using the Word Reading Achievement sub-test of the British Ability Scales (BAS II). The Recall of Digits Forward and Recall of Digits Backward subtests from BAS II were utilized as measures for working memory. To measure behavior, ADHD-type symptoms were evaluated by both parents and teachers using the Conners’ Rating Scales (CPRS-L and CTRS-L).

These findings will be presented by Dr. Alex Richardson, one of the researchers behind the study, at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Annual Meeting & Food Expo being held in Chicago, Illinois USA, July 13 to 16, 2013. The education session titled “Omega – 3 Fatty Acids and the Importance of it for Children’s Behavioral and Cognitive Development”’ will be held on Monday, July 15 at 11 a.m. in Room N427ab (McCormick Place).