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Fri Jan 19, 2007 10:14 AM ET
Folic acid may boost brain power in the elderly

LONDON (Reuters) - Folic acid supplements may boost brain power in the elderly and could possibly help reduce the risk of dementia, scientists said on Friday.

Brain function, memory and the speed with which information is processed decline as people age but researchers in the Netherlands and Switzerland have found that taking folic acid can help.

"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," said Dr Jane Durga of the Nestle Research Center in Lausanne.

Folic acid is a synthetic compound of folate, a B vitamin found in green leafy vegetables, yeast, liver, beans and in some fruits. Women are advised to take folic acid before conceiving and during the early months of pregnancy to prevent disorders such as spina bifida.

British researchers have also shown that folic acid supplements decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease by lowering levels of the amino acid homocysteine, which is thought to damage the inner lining of arteries.

POOR MENTAL PERFORMANCE

"The functions that decrease most commonly with age are those that we see a beneficial effect through folic acid supplementation," Durga said in an interview.

"It seems a bit intuitive, although it is not proven, that if you can slow down age-related cognitive decline perhaps you can also affect the risk of dementia. But this is still a question that needs to be researched," she added.

Durga and scientists at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who reported their findings in The Lancet medical journal, compared the impact of folic acid supplements to a placebo in a study involving 818 men and women 50-70 years old.

Half of the volunteers were given 800 micrograms of folic acid each day for three years while the remainder received the dummy pill.

When the scientists tested the cognitive and memory functions at the end of the study, they found the three-year change was significantly better in the folic acid group.

In a commentary on the research, Martha Clare Morris and Christine Tangney of the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging in Chicago, Illinois said the study included volunteers with low folate levels compared to some countries. But it is not clear how much people with higher levels would benefit from the supplements.

Folate levels vary according to the diet of different populations. It is high in countries such as Greece, Italy, France and Spain where a Mediterranean diet high in fruits and vegetables is consumed and in the United States and Canada where grain is fortified with folic acid.
 
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