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Effects of omega-3s on brain function from infancy to old age

Effect of n-3 PUFA supplementation on cognitive function throughout the lifespan from infancy to old age: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.

Study under review: Effect of n-3 PUFA supplementation on cognitive function throughout the lifespan from infancy to old age: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials

Introduction

Omega-3 fatty acids, also known as n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids or n-3 PUFAs, are some of the most extensively researched nutritional supplements in the world. Examine.com’s fish oil page boasts 724 citations, more than any other supplement in the database. Sometimes the challenge is trying to make sense of all the data! Studies test different doses on a variety of different participants, while also collecting data for different periods of time.

Even similarly conducted studies can have conflicting results, and those studies that don’t find a positive effect may not get published, or at least not noticed in the media. Partly because of this, looking at any one single study often isn’t enough to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of a particular supplement. Looking at many different studies in a systematic fashion can help counter these issues.

Omega-3 supplementation in adults typically comes from fish or flaxseed oil. Fish oil and other marine oils primarily contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), while flaxseed oil and other plant based oils contain primarily alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). In someone eating a typical western diet[1] high in omega-6 fatty acids, less than 10%[2] of the shorter ALA molecules are converted to longer, more beneficial DHA and EPA molecules. In infants, supplementation is usually in the form of formula that has added DHA[3]. DHA is a required molecule for brain growth. It is particularly important in infancy and early childhood, as over half of the postnatal brain growth occurs in the first year of life, with most of the remainder completed by age six.

Omega-3 supplementation has been linked to several positive effects on a number of functions in the body, including blood pressure[4], triglyceride levels[5], symptoms of depression[6], and cognitive function. Previous cognition trials have shown benefits[7] in infants and conflicting results[8][9] in adults. The study being reviewed aimed to separate the data from many previous n-3 PUFA supplementation studies based on the age group of the participants (infants, children and adults, or the elderly) to determine how supplementation may or may not affect cognitive function at different stages of life.

A huge amount of data exists for omega-3 fatty acids, with a good deal of the studies having conflicting results. While omega-3s have shown positive results for a variety of cardiovascular outcomes, data on cognition effects have been more mixed.

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