Folic acid and Alzheimer's
Ryan Rawlings, MD, is a board-certified neurologist at Banner Estrella Medical Center.
Question: I heard that folic acid may reduce my risk for Alzheimer’s or dementia. Is that true and, if so, how much should I have in my diet?
Answer: Alzheimer’s and dementia are both serious health problems that, more often than not, cannot be deterred merely by changing your diet. Recent research from the Netherlands has suggested that an increase of folic acid may improve performance on tests that measure information processing speed (brain power) and memory. Since deterioration in brain power and memory are early indicators of Alzheimer’s or dementia, it stands to reason that an increase of folic acid may help deter those diseases. However, it is important to understand the study for what it is before adding folic acid to your diet.
In the study, 818 men and women 50-70 years old were supplied with either a folic acid supplement or a placebo each day for three years. The study reported that those with the supplement showed significantly better performance on tests that measured brain power and memory.
In a response to the Netherland study, U.S. physicians found that the volunteers started the program with low folate levels. Folate is a B-vitamin commonly found in green leafy vegetables, liver, beans and in some fruits. Folic acid is a synthetic compound of folate.
Folate levels vary according to diet. For instance, if you have a regular diet that is high in fruits and vegetables, your folate level could already be sufficient. Here in the United States, we also fortify our grain with folic acid, which contributes to higher folate levels as well. So, the old adage stands true—a healthy diet makes for a healthy body and a healthy mind.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t add folic acid to your diet if you are high risk for dementia or Alzheimer’s. But before taking any additional supplements, it is always smart to talk with your primary care physician or, if you have one, your neurologist. Your folic acid levels can be tested if you are concerned about memory lost. They can then best recommend what vitamins you need in your diet and which are already sufficient for your lifestyle.