Nov. 22, 2002 -- Its benefits in preventing birth defects have made it a staple for pregnant women, but a new study shows many more people may benefit from a folic acid boost. Researchers say a daily dose of folic acid could reduce a person's risk of heart disease and stroke by about 20%.
Folic acid has been shown to effectively lower levels of an amino acid in the blood called homocysteine. In recent years, a growing body of evidence has suggested that higher than normal levels of homocysteine levels are an independent risk factor for heart disease and can lead to dangerous blood clots and hardening of the arteries.
The researchers looked at two different kinds of studies -- for a total of 100 studies -- and found the same results -- strong evidence, they say, that elevated homocysteine levels do indeed increase the risk of heart disease. Therefore, the researchers say that lowering homocysteine levels through the use of folic acid supplements and food fortification would be a safe and simple means to prevent heart disease. Their study appears in the Nov. 23 issue of the British Medical Journal.
By increasing folic acid intake and thus decreasing homocysteine, the researchers say the risk of heart disease would drop by 16%, blood clots in the legs by 25%, and stroke by 24%.
Study researcher David S. Wald, of the department of cardiology at Southampton General Hospital in Southampton, UK, and colleagues write, "The folic acid could be taken as tablets by high-risk patients, and possibly supplied to the general public through food fortification or a combination of both."
Cereals and grain products in the U.S. are already fortified with folic acid in order to prevent the birth defect spina bifida. Other natural dietary sources of folic acid (also known as folate in foods) include fruits and leafy, green vegetables.
SOURCES: British Medical Journal, Nov. 23, 2002 • WebMD and The Cleveland Clinic: "Homocysteine: A New Heart Disease Risk Factor?"