Fish and Omega-3s Benefit Children, Regardless of Mercury Exposure


Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), namely DHA and EPA, may improve children's learning and development. In addition, the benefits of consuming fish, which contain omega-3s, outweigh the risk of mercury exposure. These findings and more are summarized in the December 2012 PUFA Newsletter and Fats of Life e-newsletters for health professionals and consumers, respectively.

In a British study, DHA supplementation was associated with higher reading scores in seven to nine-year-old children with the lowest scores at the outset. After taking DHA from algae for 16 weeks, those in the lowest 20 percentile showed significant gains in reading. For the lowest 10 percent group, the gain was about 50 percentile.

"This study suggests that for a modest investment in nutrition and time, children with the greatest reading difficulties might be able to boost their reading ability substantially," says PUFA Newsletter and Fats of Life Editor Joyce Nettleton , D.Sc. "Such an achievement might also improve self-esteem and school performance."

A study in the Seychelles showed that greater maternal fish consumption during pregnancy was associated with higher language scores in the 5-year-old offspring in spite of exposure to mercury. Higher blood DHA levels in the mother during pregnancy were also significantly associated with higher total language and verbal ability scores in the children.

"While the Seychelles mothers' hair mercury levels are 12 times higher than in the US, their children do not experience developmental deficits," Nettleton says. "This shows that the benefits of maternal fish consumption during pregnancy far outweigh the risks to their children from mercury exposure. In fact, high levels of DHA from fish may benefit their children's language abilities."

Investigators in Boston, US, looked at the possible association between prenatal mercury exposure and ADHD-like behaviors in children eight years later. The researchers tested the children of women living close to a contaminated harbor. The children were given neuropsychological tests that reflect ADHD symptoms. Risk of higher scores was significantly reduced for children whose mothers ate more than two meals of fish per week, even when accounting for exposure to mercury. These children also had higher mental processing speeds and improved distractibility scores.

"This study reconfirms that the benefits of eating fish considerably outweigh the potential risks from exposure to contaminants," Nettleton concludes.

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