Judging by the number of after-school programs, many parents want to help their children score higher on tests. But there's one very simple way to accomplish this: have them eat more fish! A recent Oxford University study found that children’s blood levels of key omega-3 fatty acids, in particular the long-chain omega-3 DHA (the form found in most abundance in the brain), "significantly predicted" how well they were able to concentrate and learn.

These omega-3 fatty acids, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), are also known as polyunsaturated fatty acids. These vital nutrients play a critical role in brain function and normal growth and development, and they may reduce the risk of heart disease. Although our bodies can in theory make some EPA and DHA from shorter-chain omega-3 (found in some vegetable oils), research has shown this conversion is not reliable, particularly for DHA. Omega-3 fatty acids, then, must come from our diets. Fish, seafood, and some algae provide these nutrients, with higher levels found in fatty fish such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, and salmon.

Among Children

To conduct their tests evaluating blood omega-3 levels in schoolchildren, co-researchers Dr. Alex Richardson and Professor Paul Montgomery of Oxford University’s Department of Social Policy and Intervention took blood samples from 493 schoolchildren between the ages of 7 and 9. Based on both national assessments and their teachers' judgment, all of the children had below-average reading skills. Parents reported that almost nine out of 10 children in the sample ate fish less than twice a week, and nearly one in 10 never ate fish at all.

On average, analyses of their blood samples showed just under two percent of the children’s total blood fatty acids were omega-3 DHA and 0.5 percent were omega-3 EPA, with a total of 2.45 percent for these long-chain omega-3 combined. This is below the minimum of four percent recommended by leading scientists.

“From a sample of nearly 500 schoolchildren, we found that levels of Omega-3 fatty acids in the blood significantly predicted a child’s behaviour and ability to learn,” Montgomery stated in a press release. “Higher levels of Omega-3 in the blood, and DHA in particular, were associated with better reading and memory, as well as with fewer behaviour problems as rated by parents and teachers.”

The current research builds on earlier studies conducted by the same researchers. Just last year, this set of researchers showed 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.

Source: Montgomery P, Burton JR, Sewell RP, et al. Low Blood Long Chain Omega-3 Fatty Acids in UK Children Are Associated with Poor Cognitive Performance and Behavior: A Cross-Sectional Analysis from the DOLAB Study. PLOS One. 2013.