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Omega-3 supplements and ADHD

by on 2019/12/16

This post was written by Emily McDougal and Sinead Rhodes

Parents are often keen to hear about ways to support their child’s health and development. In recent years, media coverage regarding possible causes or risk factors for childhood disorders has increased. We have previously written about media coverage of risk factors for children’s development, such as our previous Autism and vitamin D in pregnancy blog post.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a common childhood disorder, and around 1% of children are diagnosed with ADHD in the UK. People with ADHD might have difficulty paying attention, may fidget, move or talk excessively, act without thinking, or make careless mistakes. We have previously written about media coverage of ADHD, such as those relating to the profile and brain differences. ADHD is commonly treated with medication, such as Ritalin or Adderall, which aims to improve concentration and reduce hyperactivity.

The Daily Mail recently covered findings from a research study, using the headline, “Fish oil supplements could be ‘as good as drugs’ for treating ADHD”. Here we break down what the study actually did, and how well the newspaper article communicates the study’s findings.

What did this study do?

Ninety-two children in Taiwan, aged 6 to 18 years old, were given either Omega-3 (a nutrient found in oily fish) or a placebo (a substance that has no therapeutic effect) once a day for twelve weeks. Children completed a 15-minute computer task both before and after the supplements were taken, which measured changes in their ability to maintain attention and how impulsive their responses were.

Parents, teachers and children over 12 years old also completed a questionnaire to measure the child’s ADHD symptom behaviours before and after the supplement was taken, to see whether this changed at all.

After taking Omega-3, children’s ability to attend during the 15-minute task improved more than those taking the placebo. However, those taking the placebo improved more on a different measure, impulsiveness, than those taking Omega-3. The findings were therefore mixed: one ADHD-associated symptom seemed to improve more with Omega-3, whereas another didn’t.

Changes in ADHD behaviours reported by parents, teachers and children did not differ between children taking Omega-3 and the placebo, suggesting that the supplement did not improve ADHD symptoms of attention or impulsivity. This does not match with the findings from the computer task.

How well does the article describe the study?

The newspaper article headline said that the Omega-3 could be as good as drugs usually given to treat ADHD symptoms, but this is not an accurate statement. Since the study did not compare children taking Omega-3 to children taking medication such as Ritalin, we do not know how effective the supplement is compared to ADHD medication.

Towards the end of the article, the writer reports comments from another researcher who highlights some of the flaws with the study. We describe some of these below. It is therefore important to read articles such as this to the end, as usually any shocking statements are in the headline, with more balanced arguments given later on.

The article includes a description of ADHD written by the NHS, which was good to see. It offers a good overview of ADHD for anyone who is less familiar with the disorder.

Other things to keep in mind

The article is written about one study (with 92 children), so we do not know whether the same results would be found for all children with ADHD. As well as this, the study was conducted in Taiwan, so we do not know whether children in other countries such as the UK or USA would benefit from Omega-3 supplements.

The study also does not report whether children in each of the groups (Omega-3 or placebo) were of the same age. They were randomly allocated to groups, and since the age range of the children is so large, it could be that the age of the children affected the findings.

Our key advice here, as per our top tip of don’t stop at the headline, is to read through the whole article. Not only is the headline misleading, but the balanced arguments are not described until the end.

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