Omega-3 study: More questions than answers?

‘Omega-3 supplements don’t improve memory’ declared a headline in Time Magazine this week. Other national and international media also came to the same stark conclusion when reporting the findings of a newly published study into the effectiveness of omega-3 supplements.

But could it be that the study, Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), raises more questions than it answers?

The researchers studied the progress of around 4,000 people over a five-year period. The participants were divided into four groups, with one group taking a placebo, another taking omega-3 on its own, a third group taking two nutrients found in green leafy vegetables, and a fourth group taking omega-3 plus the vegetable compounds.

When the researchers tested all the participants on a range of cognitive skills they found no statistical difference between any of the groups. This led Time to claim that “the strongest study yet may finally dispel the myth that taking omega-3 supplements can protect the brain from cognitive decline and dementia”.

But while the study is a comparatively large one, it is also arguably conducted over too short a period to yield meaningful results – the researchers themselves concede that omega-3 fatty acids may take many years, and perhaps decades, to exert an effect.

There is a question too to be asked about the type and age of the participants. The people in the study were all elderly and identified as being at a high risk of developing macular degeneration (the study was originally designed to look the effectiveness of omega-3 supplementation in the prevention and treatment of AMD). It’s not known whether people with AMD differ in some ways to the general population, or whether the condition makes them less likely to respond to omega-3 fatty acids.

Then there is the question of how diffrently fish oil in supplement form is absorbed by the body, compared to omega-3 oils obtained through eating fish. It has been established that when fish oil is removed and concentrated into supplement-form, its chemical make-up undergoes important changes,

Once again, a complex area of science – and a study of limited usefulness – has produced simplistic and unhelpful headlines.