January 19, 2007

Folic acid pills 'can slow mental decline'
Nigel Hawkes, Health Editor

Taking folic acid supplements can slow the mental decline in older people, a study suggests.

A Dutch team studied 400 people aged between 50 and 70 who were split into two groups. Those in one group were given 800 micrograms of folic acid a day; the others were given a placebo.

Their memory and brain functions were measured at the beginning and end of the study, using a set of established tests. People gradually lose brain function as they age, but in the group given folic acid these changes were slowed, the team reports in The Lancet.

In some cases, the folic acid group actually showed improvements over the three years. In memory power, for example, three years of folic acid provided a benefit equivalent to being 4.7 years younger.

On other tests the effects were smaller. For information processing, the gain was the equivalent of being 2.1 years younger, and for global cognitive function 1.5 years. Nevertheless, these effects were significant, say the researchers, led by Jane Durga, of Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

“We have shown that three-year folic acid supplementation improves performance on tests that measure information processing speed and memory, domains that are known to decline with age.

“Trials similar to our own should be repeated in other populations to provide greater insight into the clinical relevance of folic acid supplementation, such as in populations with mild cognitive impairment and dementia.”

The people studied in the trial had low folate intakes of about 200 micrograms a day but this would be not be untypical of those eating northern European diets.

Intake can be increased by taking daily folic acid supplements, or by fortifying flour, such as is done in the US and Canada. Britain has been discussing fortification of white flour for years, without reaching any conclusion.