Long-Chain PUFA Status at Birth May Relate to Behaviors at Age 10

There is a small, but growing, literature on the relationship between long-chain omega-3 PUFA (n-3 LC-PUFA) status at birth and later child development, cognition and behavior. Do the observations reported in the first year of life extend into later childhood? Do relationships appear later that were absent in infancy? There are not many studies to answer these questions. One example is a report that the quality, but not the quantity of motor function at age 7 was associated with higher umbilical DHA levels. The children also had fewer problem behaviors at that age. However, DHA at birth was not related to cognitive ability. Some investigators have reported that the children of mothers who ate oily fish during pregnancy were less likely to become hyperactive and had significantly higher verbal IQ scores compared with children whose mothers did not eat fatty fish. Another study found that the mother’s DHA level in pregnancy was related to the child’s sequential processing ability at age 7. Others have observed a lower risk of suboptimal prosocial and verbal intelligence scores in 8-year-old children whose mothers ate 340 or more grams (12 ounces) of fish per week. In a new study by researchers in Germany, parents of 10-year-old children completed a questionnaire about their children’s behavior. From these answers the investigators compiled scores for emotional symptoms, conduct problems, hyperactivity/inattention, peer relation problems and prosocial behavior. Then they assessed the relationships between these scores and the polyunsaturated fatty acid levels in cord blood at birth. The investigators observed that total problem behavior scores, as well as those for conduct problems and hyperactivity/inattention, were significantly higher in males compared with females. When the analyses were adjusted for several confounding variables, such as household income, higher levels of total long-chain PUFAs and DHA were associated with lower (i.e., better) total difficulties scores. Higher concentrations of total long-chain PUFAs and arachidonic acid were related to lower emotional symptom scores. DHA was the only long-chain PUFA associated with hyperactivity/inattention scores. Interestingly, higher levels of EPA and alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 found in some plants) were associated with conduct problems and peer relation problems, respectively. Although these relationships with various PUFAs were scattered among the different behavior scores, it appeared that both long-chain omega-6 and omega-3 PUFAs were associated with behavior. Chief among these were the links between higher DHA and lower total difficulties and hyperactivity/inattention scores, and arachidonic acid and total long-chain PUFAs with fewer emotional symptoms. Whether other investigators find similar associations at this age remains to be seen. In general, however, these observations suggest that long-chain PUFAs may affect children’s behaviors later in childhood and need to be considered in maternal and infant nutrition.