ALA is an essential fatty acid, which means that you need it but you must get this fat from your diet because your body is unable to produce it. In general, omega 3 fats are a crucial component of all cell membranes, including the eye (retina) and brain as well as aiding in the process of energy production to support functions involving the heart, lungs, immune system, and hormones (endocrine system), work properly.1
In my opinion, the key benefit of DHA lies in its unique spatial characteristics. As mentioned earlier, the extra double bond (six in DHA vs. five in EPA) and increased carbon length (22 carbons in DHA vs. 20 in EPA) means that DHA takes up takes up a lot more space than does EPA in the membrane. Although this increase in spatial volume makes DHA a poor substrate for phospholipase A2 as well as the COX and LOX enzymes, it does a great job of making membranes (especially those in the brain) a lot more fluid as the DHA sweeps out a much greater volume in the membrane than does EPA. This increase in membrane fluidity is critical for synaptic vesicles and the retina of the eye as it allows receptors to rotate more effectively thus increasing the transmission of signals from the surface of the membrane to the interior of the nerve cells. This is why DHA is a critical component of these highly fluid portions of the nerves (7). On the other hand, the myelin membrane is essentially an insulator so that relatively little DHA is found in that part of the membrane.
The Japanese notably have the lowest levels of coronary heart disease mortality and atherosclerosis among developed nations — a phenomena that has been largely subscribed to diet. However, even within Japan, a 10-year study of over 41,000 people found that higher intakes of omega-3s were associated with lower risks of nonfatal coronary events (8). A more recent study also found that Japanese with higher omega-3 index levels (10%) had a lower risk of fatal coronary heart disease than those with a lower omega-3 index levels (8%) (9). The study begs the question of whether maybe even the Japanese have room to improve their omega-3 intake and whether 8% should be considered the lower limit of a desirable range.