Low folate levels linked to dementia

It’s long been known that pregnant women should take folic acid to help protect their baby from birth defects. But now it seems the vitamin can help reduce the risk of dementia, and having low levels has also been linked to premature death.

Research from the US and Israel has found deficiency in folate (also known as vitamin B9, with its synthetic form being folic acid) was associated with a substantially increased risk of both dementia and death from any cause – people with folate deficiency had a 1.68-fold increased risk of dementia and a 2.98-fold increased risk of dying.

Read: Nine beverages that will give your brain a boost

And past studies have found the vitamin – which helps form red blood cells, enables nerves to function properly and is essential in the formation of DNA – may help protect from heart disease and stroke. The British Dietetic Association (BDA: bda.uk.com) explains that folic acid supplements can reduce high levels of homocysteine – an amino acid that irritates blood vessels – which has been associated with increased risk of heart attack or stroke, although it’s thought to be an indicator rather than a risk factor for heart disease.

“Folate is typically linked with pregnancy, but is actually essential for health across the age spectrum,” says dietitian Dr Carrie Ruxton. “Its key jobs in the body are making our genetic building blocks, DNA and RNA, and assisting in cell division and creation of different proteins.”

Read: The early life dementia indicator you may have missed

But how can you make sure you’re getting enough folate? These are the best ways to get the vitamin.

In food
The BDA says most people (other than pregnant women or those trying for a baby) should be able to get enough folate in their diet by eating plenty of vegetables, fruit, beans and wholegrains, which are naturally high in folate, and may also protect against bowel cancer and heart disease.

The BDA says folic acid can be found in green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and broccoli; beans and legumes (e.g. peas, blackeye beans); yeast and beef extracts; oranges and orange juice; wheat bran and other wholegrain foods; poultry, pork, shellfish and liver; and fortified foods (such as some brands of breakfast cereals – check the label).

“Eating broccoli, cabbage and spinach, and having a daily glass of orange juice, are simple ways for everyone to get more folate in the diet,” says Dr Ruxton.

It is added to bread flour
Australian millers are required to add folic acid (a form of the B vitamin folate) to wheat flour for bread-making purposes to help prevent life-threatening spinal conditions in babies.

The addition of folic acid means that foods made with flour, such as bread, help to avoid around 200 neural tube defects each year.

How much folate do I need?
Everyone needs folate, but the amount you need changes depending on your age and other factors.

The Australian Government recommends the following intakes of folate:

Children

  • 1-3 years – 150µg per day
  • 4-8 years – 200µg per day
  • 9-13 years – 300µg per day
  • 14-17 years – 400µg per day.

Adults

  • 18 years and older (men, non-pregnant women) – 400µg per day
  • Breastfeeding women – 500µg per day
  • Pregnant women – 600µg per day.

However, the BDA says it’s advisable for people aged over 50 – or with a history of bowel cancer – not to take folic acid supplements containing more than 200μg/day.

The BDA also says women trying for a baby, and for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, are advised to take a folic acid supplement, or pregnancy-specific vitamin supplement, and eat a diet rich in folates.

Read: What the science says about multivitamins

Dr Ruxton says: “Women planning a pregnancy are advised to take a folic acid supplement of 400 micrograms daily. People can also top up their blood folate levels with a multivitamin or B complex supplement. Indeed, clinical trials have found that taking B vitamins can benefit mental function and help prevent cognitive decline in older people.”

– With PA

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Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Written by Lisa Salmon

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