• Expert opinion
  • 2016
  • Essential Fatty Acids

Mapping Public Health Benefits of Adequate Omega-3 Levels

Published on

11 August 2016

By Manfred Eggersdorfer

Professor for Healthy Ageing University Medical Center Groningen (UMGG) and Senior Vice President of Nutrition Science and Advocacy at DSM


A new global omega-3 status map[1] indicates that adults in most regions of the world have a low to very low status of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), particularly EPA and DHA. The first analysis of its kind, it is hoped that the findings can be used when developing both national and global guidelines regarding omega-3 intake.

A global understanding of omega-3 levels

The map is part of a new structured review, published in Progress in Lipid Research. It was created by analyzing 298 studies of EPA and DHA levels in the bloodstreams of healthy adults across the world, identifying which regions are more at risk of chronic illness. Regions classified as having very low EPA and DHA blood levels (<4%) included North, South and Central America, Central and Southern Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Africa. The Sea of Japan, Scandinavia and regions with indigenous populations or populations who have not adopted Westernized food habits were classified as having high status of EPA and DHA (>8%).

The regions with a higher omega-3 status, such as Scandinavia and the Sea of Japan, tend to consume a larger amount of fish than other regions, and often a lower amount of omega-6 fatty acids from vegetable oil sources. The regions with low omega-3 levels are widespread – particularly in the Western world. It may not only reflect their dietary habits, but also consumer attitudes towards supplementation.

Public health implications

As stated by the World Health Organization, non-communicable diseases are estimated to be the cause of death of approximately 38 million people worldwide every year.[2] Omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA in particular) have long been associated with decreased risk of cardiovascular conditions[3] and cognitive decline[4]. The paper highlights that a significant proportion of the population are at increased risk of non-communicable diseases due to low omega-3 status.

A strong case for health authorities

There is now a strong case for health authorities to issue recommendations relating to omega-3 and reduction in the risk of experiencing cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cognitive decline. It is also hoped that this will lead to other recommendations in this area, such as a healthy diet and increased physical activity.

With the comprehensive analysis of data now available, these new recommendations will not only give the general population guidance on adequate omega-3 intake, but also highlight the risks of low levels of bloodstream EPA and DHA.


  1. Progress in Lipid Research, 20 May 2016; doi: 10.1016/j.plipres.2016.05.001 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0163782715300333
  2. WHO Factsheet on non-communicable diseases Jan 2015 http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs355/en/
  3. Mori et al. 2014 (review), “Omega-3 fatty acids and cardiovascular disease: epidemiology and effects on cardiometabolic risk factors”; Mozaffarian et al. 2013 (study), ”Plasma phospholipid long-chain ω-3 fatty acids and total and cause-specific mortality in older adults: a cohort study”; Lavie et al. 2009 (review), “Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Diseases“; www.efsa.europa.eu/de/efsajournal/pub/3840 
  4. Zhang et al. 2016, ”Intakes of fish and PUFAs and mild-to-severe cognitive impairment risks: a dose response meta-analysis of 21 cohort studies”; Mocking et al. 2016, Meta-analysis and meta-regression of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation for major depressive disorders; Yurko-Mauro et al. 2015, “Docosahexaenoic Acid and Adult Memory: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis”; Stonehouse 2014, “Does consumption of LC Omega-3 PUFA enhance cognitive performance in healthy school-aged children throughout adulthood?”; Witte et al. 2014, “Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids improve brain function and structure in older adults”; Lee et al. 2013, “Docosahexaenoic acid-concentrated fish oil supplementation in subjects with mild cognitive impairment (MCI): a 12-month randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial”; Richardson et al. 2012, “Docosahexaenoic Acid for Reading, Cognition and Behavior in Children Aged 7–9 Years: A Randomized, Controlled Trial” (The DOLAB Study); Yurko-Mauro et al. 2010, “Beneficial effects of docosahexaenoic acid on cognition in age-related cognitive decline”; Oulhaj et al. 2016, “Omega-3 Fatty Acid Status Enhances the Prevention of Cognitive Decline by B Vitamins in Mild Cognitive Impairment”.


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