Folic acid supplements rejuvenate older brains
Folic acid supplements can improve mental performance and memory in people over 50, according to a new study.
Also known as vitamin B9, folic acid is naturally present in foods such as liver, spinach and beans, and is taken as a supplement by pregnant women to prevent the birth defect spina bifida in their babies.
Now, researchers have shown that folic acid, or folate, might also slow the insidious effects of age on the brain. Jane Durga and colleagues at Wageningen University in the Netherlands studied more than 800 men and women between the ages of 50 and 70 who had low – but not dangerously low – levels of folate. Over a three-year period, these people took either a placebo, or 800 micrograms of folate per day (double the US-recommended daily intake).
Memory tests before and after the experiment showed those who took the supplement performed as well on a sensitive test of memory as people five years younger – and, on some parts of it, seven years younger. There was about a two-year gain in tests of reaction speeds, information processing, and overall thinking.
Taking folic acid also led to a significant reduction in levels of homocysteine, a blood chemical linked to both heart disease and dementia.
Pros and consThe findings suggest people should be encouraged to take more of the vitamin than currently recommended, the researchers say. Folate degrades rapidly during food storage and processing, meaning people who do not eat lots of the fresh foods that contain it could be missing out.
The findings will reignite the debate about whether the vitamin should be routinely added to foods such as flour. In the US and Canada folate is added to flour, by law, to prevent spina bifida.
Europe, however, has refused to do the same in deference to greater public nervousness about food additives. And experts caution that an increase in folic acid can mask a vitamin B12 deficiency in older people, which can cause serious health problems, including nerve damage.
Journal reference: The Lancet (vol 369 p 208)
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