Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Folic acid offers more protection than thought

Baby-protecting folic acid is getting renewed attention: Not only does it fight spina bifida and some related abnormalities, new research shows it also may prevent premature birth and heart defects.

Now pregnancy specialists are asking if it's time for the government to boost the amount being added to certain foods to help ensure mothers-to-be get enough. But for older adults (past child-bearing age), there may be a down side to the nutrient: Extra-high levels late in life just might pose a cancer risk.

"Folate is assuming the role of a chameleon, if you will," says Dr. Joel Mason of Tufts University's nutrition research center, who is researching that possible risk.

Folic acid is an artificial version of folate, a B vitamin found in leafy green vegetables, citrus fruit and dried beans. Everyone needs regular folate because it's important for healthy cell growth yet the body doesn't store up enough of it.

And pregnant women need extra, even before they may know they've conceived. Enough folate in pregnancy's earliest days can prevent devastating birth defects of the spine and brain called neural tube defects, including spina bifida. Those defects have dropped by about a third since the U.S. mandated fortifying certain breads, cereals and pastas with folic acid in January 1998.

Two major studies in the past month suggest the vitamin may be even more protective.

First, Texas researchers analyzed nearly 35,000 pregnancies and found that women who reported taking folic acid supplements for at least a year before becoming pregnant cut in half their risk of having a premature baby. Their risk of having very early preemies, the babies least likely to survive, dropped even more.

Then Canadian researchers analyzed 1.3 million births in Quebec since 1990 to look for heart defects, the most common type of birth defect. They found the rate of serious heart defects has dropped 6 percent a year since Canada began its own food fortification in December 1998.

It's hard to get enough folate for pregnancy through an average diet. So health authorities have long advised that all women of childbearing age take a daily vitamin containing 400 micrograms of folic acid — even if they're not trying to conceive, since half of pregnancies are unplanned. Last month, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force went a little further, recommending that women take a daily supplement with 400 micrograms to 800 micrograms of folic acid daily.

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