Investigating the effects of long chain omega-3 fatty acids on primary school achievement : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Education at Massey University, Albany, Auckland, New Zealand
Background: All parents are keen to support their child to learn and grow. A variety of studies have identified benefits to children's cognitive development with omega-3 (ω-3) PUFA supplementation. The majority of these studies however have involved children with learning or behavioural difficulties and have generally utilised highly specific cognitive tests. Few studies have involved healthy normally-achieving mainstream children and even fewer have used classroom tests to identify academic rather than cognitive changes.
Aim: The aim of this study was to investigate whether supplementation with ω-3 PUFA (fish oil) affected the academic achievement of 8-13 year old general classroom children. Whether these children, their parents and teachers could detect changes in learning and behaviour attributed to this supplementation was also investigated.
Methods: A double-blind randomised placebo controlled study over a 15 week period was undertaken with 209 children. Randomisation was stratified for age and gender. These were healthy normally-achieving mainstream children who attended the same school. Every school day the active group consumed 900 mg of omega-3 whilst the placebo group consumed 900 mg of vegetable oil. Changes to academic ability was investigated using the Thurstone Word Fluency Tests (testing fluency and spelling), the NZ generated asTTle reading test and maths basic facts tests. The daily consumption of foods enriched in -3 PUFA was assessed using food frequency questionnaires at baseline and recording the child’s intake of these foods every day at school for the duration of the study. Possible changes in behaviour and attitude were investigated using children, parent and teacher questionnaires.
Findings: The food frequency questionnaire and intake records identified a low consumption of ω-3 PUFA rich foods. Fish oil treatment did not affect fluency and reading compared to placebo treatment. Significant improvements were identified with fish oil compared to placebo in subgroups of 8-9 year olds for an aspect of spelling and in highly numerate and literate children for division. Parents and teachers did not identify any significant differences between treatment groupings when completing the behaviour questionnaire. Children consuming fish oil reported at 4 and 15 weeks significant improvements related to getting along with the others compared to children in the placebo group. This trend was also reflected in the teacher questionnaires regarding child behaviour.
Conclusions: Despite some significant improvements being evident, because of the fact that these were only in subgroups and potentially the result of multiple calculations, the notion that omega-3 can influence academic achievement cannot be accepted. These findings however strongly highlight the need for additional research.