Folic acid, the B vitamin perhaps best known for helping to prevent birth defects, can sharpen an aging mind, say Dutch researchers.

Their research is the latest to suggest that folic acid supplementation can improve memory and thinking ability in older adults—as well as provide other health benefits.

Folic acid supplements are considered especially helpful for people with high blood levels of the amino acid homocysteine. High levels of this dangerous substance, caused in part by low consumption of folk acid, are linked with increased risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke and possibly Alzheimer's disease.

The Study

For this study, researchers randomly assigned 818 adults between ages 50 and 70 to receive either a daily 800-microgram folic acid supplement or a placebo for three years.

At the study's start, all participants had low levels of folic acid—also known as folate—as evidenced by elevated homocysteine concentrations.

Results: Those getting the vitamin supplements had actually improved and not only maintained—their thinking ability, especially in the areas of memory and information processing speed. What's more, their blood concentrations of the nutrient increased 576% and their homocysteine levels fell 26%.

Previously, the same Dutch researchers found that people who took a folk acid supplement had less decline in hearing low-frequency sounds over time, compared with people who didn't take the supplement.

The Reaction

"We can certainly take away that folate is going to be beneficial for cognitive improvement when you have high homocysteine levels," says Maria Carrillo, director of medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer's Association.

Adds Richard Finnell, professor at Texas A&M's Health Science Center, This underscores the importance of B vitamins. They do more than protect babies against birth defects."

Folic acid has several functions: It helps the body digest and utilize proteins and to synthesize new proteins when they are needed; it's essential for the production of red blood cells and the synthesis of DNA; it helps with tissue growth and cell function; it helps to increase appetite when needed; and it stimulates the formation of digestive acids. Good food sources of folate include beans and legumes; citrus fruits and juices; wheat bran and other whole grains; dark, green leafy vegetables; poultry; pork; shellfish and liver.

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