By: Talking Nutrition Editors
Advances in medical care have improved survival rates and outcomes of infants born prematurely,1,4 however, complications from being born too early are still common.5 One such complication, retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), is an eye disease caused by abnormal development of blood vessels in the retina which can lead to vision loss and blindness in the most severe cases.6 While severe ROP occurs in a small percentage of all infants who develop ROP, it can have devastating and life-long effects.3,6 ROP has been associated with reduced brain volumes and poor developmental outcomes, suggesting there may be shared pathways that can impact brain and eye development.7
The body of scientific evidence has continued to grow regarding the critical role of the long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFAs) omega-3 DHA and omega-6 ARA in brain and eye development, as well as immune function during early life.8-10 During the third trimester of pregnancy, DHA and ARA are selectively transferred from mother to the unborn baby. Thus, compared to term infants, infants born prematurely have lower levels of DHA and ARA, fatty acids which are key for the healthy development and function of the retina and brain.10-12 Indeed, low blood levels of DHA and ARA have been associated with an increased risk of certain neonatal morbities such as chronic lung disease, late onset sepsis13 and ROP.15
Scientists propose that deficits of these fatty acids may increase the risk of cell membrane damage and interfere with normal blood vessel functioning;14 indeed, these scenarios appear to play a role in the development of ROP.2,15
While studies have been conducted to evaluate the impact of LC-PUFAs on ROP, few have assessed both DHA and ARA together. In order to do so, Hellstrom and colleagues evaluated the impact of supplemental DHA and ARA on the frequency of severe ROP in premature infants less than 28 weeks gestation. The researchers found that treatment with a combination of ARA and DHA in a 2:1 ratio reduced the risk of severe ROP by 50%, compared with the standard of care. Additionally, blood levels of DHA and ARA were significantly higher in the infants who received the supplement. Importantly, there were no significant adverse effects.2
This study clearly demonstrates the benefit of supplementing ARA and DHA together – and importantly, in a 2:1 ratio – in significantly reducing the risk of ROP for extremely preterm infants. It adds to the existing data that describes the importance of not only the amount, but also the balance of DHA and ARA in infant feeding.2,8
Earlier studies have documented a link between low DHA and ARA status and ROP risk. In one study, low blood levels of ARA in premature infants were strongly associated with later development of ROP15 and in others, the risk of severe ROP or ROP that required treatment was significantly decreased in premature infants who received either an oral or intravenous (IV) source of DHA.16-17
In contrast, other studies looking at different outcomes have indicated the importance of adding both DHA and ARA in balanced amounts during early life. Clinical studies of term and preterm infants reported that when DHA was given in amounts either equal to or greater than ARA, ARA levels decline and the functional benefits associated with supplementation are reduced or not consistently observed.19-21
A brief overview of other data reinforces the importance of the findings from the Hellstrom study: the positive outcomes observed are the result of an intervention that utilized ARA and DHA together and in an ideal ratio.2
Always present in breast milk together, ARA and DHA are associated with positive functional outcomes. Pediatric nutrition experts recommend the addition of both ARA and DHA to infant formula in efficacious amounts. Indeed, both the levels and ratio of ARA and DHA have been found to be key factors in supporting beneficial outcomes.10,22
Medical experts caring for premature infants should be encouraged by the findings from the study done by Hellstrom et al, which reports a novel strategy to reduce the risk of a potentially devastating eye disease in extremely premature infants: supplementation with both ARA and DHA in a 2:1 ratio to effectively reduce the risk of severe ROP by 50% while also increasing blood levels of both LC-PUFAs.
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The latest nutrition research shines a spotlight on DHA and ARA for healthy growth and development