Health

Fill up on the anti-dementia vitamin

It's not just mums-to-be, experts say we all need to boost our folic acid intake

Bottle with folic acid supplement on white background
Caroline Jones

FOLIC acid is becoming the vitamin of the moment. Best known as a supplement for pregnant women to prevent birth defects in their unborn child, research has now linked it to reducing the risk of a host of health problems, including dementia, and experts say we should all raise our daily intake.

A review of studies in the journal Nutrients, published in June, found that taking a regular folic acid supplement reduced levels of inflammation, which lies at the root of chronic conditions including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and arthritis.

Another study earlier this year published in the Quarterly Journal of Medicine suggested getting enough folic acid also helps the body break down homocysteine, a compound made when proteins are digested - high levels are linked to damaged blood vessels, reduced blood flow and a higher risk of heart attack or stroke.

The findings led researchers from the University of Aberdeen to recommend all over-65s increase their intake of folic acid to three times the current 200mcg daily recommendation.

Meanwhile, several studies have also shown a link between being low in folic acid and a higher risk of Alzheimer's disease. The beneficial action folic acid has on homocysteine is thought to be behind this link, too, as research has long suggested high levels contribute towards dementia.

Folic acid, also known as vitamin B9, is essential for nerve function and the formation of DNA and healthy red blood cells.

The Department of Health recommends adults should get their 200mcg daily intake through food, while those trying for a baby or pregnant are advised to take a 400mcg supplement, too.

Yet figures from the UK's National Diet and Nutrition Survey show there's been steady decline in folic acid intake in the past 15 years; 40 per cent of adults have low blood levels. This is thought to be partly due to the fact that our modern diet of processed foods contains very little folic acid, compared with unrefined wholegrains.

Experts agree it's vital to reverse this trend, with many health authorities, including the UK Chief Medical Officers, the British Dietetic Association and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, calling for the UK to fortify flour with folic acid.

"This would be an effective and safe measure to boost the nation's intake and reduce number of babies born with neural tube defects," says Clare Thornton-Wood, a dietitian and a spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association.

"It's already done in 81 countries, including the United States.

"The UK government has consulted on the issue but it's yet to become law here."

One impediment to adopting routine fortification in foods is that research has previously suggested that high doses of folic acid could cause symptoms such as diarrhoea, sleep disorders and seizures.

There was also concern that it might mask the symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency - a particular concern in older people - or even be linked to some cancers.

But the government's independent advisory body, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, is now satisfied that these concerns are not supported by the evidence, and so it appears that folic acid fortification is a case of 'when' rather than 'if'.

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