Children whose reading test scores place them in the bottom 20% of their elementary class may benefit from supplements of DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, according to a new controlled trial.
Researchers at Oxford University’s Center for Evidence-Based Intervention studied 362 (7- to 9-year-old) children who had placed in the bottom third of their class in reading scores. For 16 weeks, the children were given either a placebo or 600 mg of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). The DHA was extracted from algae, which are the original source of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish.
Researched then tracked any changes in improvements based on a popular British reading skills test and followed up by asking parents and teachers to rate changes in the children’s behavior, including attention and restlessness.
Over the 16-week trial, the children receiving placebos progressed in their reading skills as expected. But those students who received DHA and had scored in the bottom 20% of readers at the start of the study advanced by nearly an extra month, while those in the bottom 10% gained nearly two extra months of progress. Students whose reading skills were less impaired — those whose scores had placed them at the highest end of the bottom third — did not see extra improvements with DHA.
Parents of the kids who received DHA also rated their children as more attentive and less restless, as compared with those who got placebo. However, teachers did not report improvement in the children’s behavior.
Other studies have shown that kids with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), who were given omega-3 supplements, showed improved behavior. Lead author of the current trial, Alexandra Richardson, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Center notes: “What’s new here is that we’re showing a benefit outside of a clinical population in healthy children, albeit with reading difficulties, and we showed a meaningful improvement.”
DHA is an essential nutrient, which cannot be manufactured by the body, and is used by virtually all cells. It is especially important for vision and brain function, particularly during early development. “DHA is critical for vision and it’s possible that improvements in visual perception might allow children to read better, but it all remains speculative,” says Richardson.
“We focused specifically on reading here,” notes Paul Montgomery, a co-author of the paper and professor of psychosocial interventions at Oxford, explaining that the effects of poor reading in school-age children can be lifelong, contributing to everything from unemployment to the risk of criminal activity down the line. “If reading is not mastered at that stage, how that rattles through and affects children’s life chances later on is profound.”
Not everyone agrees that the statistical analysis used in the study was sufficient. Charles Hulme, professor of psychology at University College London, who was not associated with the new research, expressed some concerns. He called the overall design “good,” but he thinks that the way the data analysis was done may have overstated the effects of DHA. “For children like this, with relatively severe reading problems, [the change seen] is of little, if any, educational significance,” he says, adding, “I think this trial is too brief — only 16 weeks — to have a realistic chance of finding effects on reading, even if they exist.”
Richardson agrees that follow-up research is needed. “We’re the first to say this needs replication,” she says, noting that her group is already working on a larger study that targets only the children with the very lowest reading scores. “We’d like to think it should be taken up by others as well.”
Experts say the best way to make sure that your child is getting enough omega-3s is to improve their diet. Fatty fish such as salmon, herring, halibut and tuna are good sources of DHA and EPA. Fish tacos are an excellent way to add omega-3s to the household menu as well as tuna sandwiches. Many other foods are now fortified with DHA such as yogurt, milk, soymilk, granola bars, bread, pasta, margarine, orange juice, cereal, peanut butter and even eggs. Nuts are also an excellent source.
Whether DHA can help improve your child’s reading skills is not known for sure. But the health benefits of adding omega-3 fatty acids to the diet are well researched.
Supplements are also a good choice for children who have certain food allergies. While there is little danger from getting too many omega-3s in a typical diet, they do have anti-clotting actions and could be dangerous for people with blood clotting disorders or those taking anti-clotting medication.
Talk with your pediatrician or family doctor if you have any concerns about adding DHA to your child’s diet.
The Oxford research was published in the journal PLOS One. It was funded by DSM Nutritional Products, which made the supplement used in the study but was not involved in the data analysis.