Folic Acid May Reduce Age-Related Memory Problems
Jacobsen disagrees. He says a cocktail of three vitamin supplements -- folic acid, B12, and B6 -- can dramatically lower homocysteine levels, even in those who get the recommended levels of the vitamins in their diets.
"Homocysteine levels naturally increase as you age," he says. "And anyone who is not supplementing and is eating a regular western diet probably has high-normal to very high homocysteine."
Jacobsen, 62, recommends taking 400-800 mcg of folic acid every day and 25-100 mg of vitamin B6. He says it is not clear if B12 supplementation is beneficial in younger people, but it does appear to benefit those over 50. He takes 500 mcg of B12 each day.
"There is no doubt in my mind that supplementation lowers homocysteine levels," he says. "We live in an age of evidence-based medicine, though, and we don't have the evidence yet to conclusively show that lowering homocysteine has any positive clinical effect. But it is also very safe to take these three water-soluble vitamins."
So should homocysteine levels be checked routinely, just like cholesterol and blood pressure? One problem with this, experts say, is that there is still controversy about what constitutes high and normal homocysteine levels. And the CDC is working to standardize homocysteine measurement. In November of 1999, CDC researchers compared the accuracy of homocysteine assay readings at 14 different labs around the U.S., and found significant discrepancies.
Ongoing studies may prove that lowering homocysteine levels can help prevent memory problems associated with aging, but Morris says it is already clear that other unidentified factors are also involved.
"It is a little discouraging, but it does appear that as you age your memory does decrease," she says. "Hopefully, folate fortification can impact this. But it is still a fact that our short-term memory at age 70 is probably going to be worse than it was at age 60, and we don't really know why."