Nutrition at the extremes of life

The Rank Prize lecture yesterday afternoon was a very interesting romp through the world of public health nutrition with Professor Ricardo Uauy. A difficult name to pronounce for many of us non-Spanish speakers (he’s originally from Chile), but a clear message at least.

Nutritionists need a common vision, a common mission to work towards. Together.

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F is for….

Firefighters…fishermen…or farmers? What do you think these three groups of professionals might have in common? All of them save lives, of course. Or they could be doing, as a result of new data presented yesterday in a satellite symposium held as part of the Nutrition Society’s 2008 Summer Meeting.

Experts meeting to discuss the latest research findings from the Lipgene1 project, explored the need to improve people’s intakes of long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, also often known as omega-3 fatty acids2 in order to prevent all the suffering, death and public expense caused by coronary heart disease each year. Importantly, they also shared data on how those intakes could be improved, almost without us being aware of it.

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Omega-3 fatty acids – what have we learned?

It’s well known that omega-3 fatty acids are crucial to the development of the brain. Animal studies have suggested that a specific fatty acid, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), plays a role in the development of cognitive abilities. So will taking extra DHA as a child make you cleverer? A paper in CAB Reviews by Carol Cheatham at the University of Kansas Medical Center looks at the evidence from both animal and human studies.

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Animal studies have shown clearly that DHA deficiency affects memory and learning, and that providing extra DHA can restore these abilities to some extent. However, in humans, fewer than half the randomised clinical trials report effects on cognition from DHA.

Babies born early miss out on the final weeks of DHA they would receive from their mothers via the placenta. Studies show that providing preterm babies with DHA does improve memory and attention relative to controls. However, for babies born at term, providing extra DHA has not given the same clear outcome, with different trials giving different results.

Cheatham looks at three possible reasons. One is that the doses of DHA may not have been high enough to work. Also, the trials used a wide variety of measures of learning and memory. Looking at more specific measures of cognition could give less mixed results. Few studies have looked at the long- term impacts, and so studying children some years after taking DHA supplements in more sophisticated tests may reveal differences.

The paper,Omega-3 fatty acids and the development of cognitive abilities: a review of DHA supplementation studies, by Carol L. Cheatham appears in CAB Reviews: Perspectives in Agriculture, Veterinary Science, Nutrition and Natural Resources, 2008, 3, No. 001.

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