June 24, 2005
Older adults who take extra amounts of folic acid may be less likely to suffer from failing memory as they age, Dutch researchers report. The study is the first to show that high amounts of this B vitamin, essential for the health of the brain and nervous system, may help to keep the brain young. It is still too early to say, however, whether folic acid or other nutrients may actually prevent the onset of Alzheimer's disease.
Dutch researchers tested 818 healthy older adults, ages 50 to 75, none of whom were suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Half were given a pill containing 800 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid for three years. The other half received a look-alike dummy pill, or placebo.
After three years, those adults taking the folic acid had scores on memory tests that were similar to those of persons five years younger. They also had scores of information-processing and muscle speed that were similar to someone two years younger.
Folic acid, also called folacin or folate, helps the body produce key chemicals for the brain and nervous system. Pregnant women are strongly advised to take folic acid supplements to help prevent serious birth defects in the developing fetus. The nutrient is commonly recommended to prevent heart disease as well; it appears to regulate the body's production of an amino-acid like substance called homocysteine that, at high levels, may damage the lining of blood vessels and lead to a heart attack or stroke.
The Recommended Daily Amount of folic acid for adults is 400 micrograms (mcg) a day. The nutrient is found in various foods, including green vegetables, beans, whole grains, and orange juice. You'd need to eat 24 spears of asparagus, though, to get the 400 mcg recommended daily amount. Many flours, breads, cereals, pasta, and other grain products are also fortified with folic acid.
Folic acid supplements are also readily available, and the nutrient is included in many multi-vitamin formulas. It can be taken any time of day, with or without food. Experts recommend that if you take a folic acid supplement, look for one that also contains vitamin B-12, since using too much of one nutrient can mask a deficiency of the other. Vitamin B-12 may also provide brain benefits as well: A study last year found that seniors with low levels of B-12 tended to have poorer memory than those with high levels of the vitamin.
Based on the results of these and other studies, it is still too early to say whether adults should routinely be taking higher doses of folic acid or other B vitamins as a preventive measure against memory loss or Alzheimer's. Further study is needed, and taking too much of the nutrient may result in serious side effects, such as seizures and other problems in some people. Consult your doctor before taking folic acid or other supplements.
Still, experts recommend that everyone get plenty of heart-healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains to assure a steady supply of many nutrients. A sound diet helps to maintain the health of the blood vessels, including those that supply oxygen and nutrients to the brain, which help to keep the mind in top working order.
Doctors presented the findings on June 20 in Washington, D.C. at an International Conference on Prevention of Dementia, sponsored by the Alzheimer's Association.
Jane Durga, et al. Wageningen University, the Netherlands. International Conference on Prevention of Dementia, Alzheimer's Association, Washington, D.C., June 20, 2005.