Folic Acid—Essential at Any Age

Folic acid is an important vitamin for women of all ages. Find out what can happen if you have too much or too little of it as you get older.
Folic Acid

Folic acid, a synthetic form of folate, is probably best known as a pregnancy supplement used to reduce the chances of the fetus developing neural tube defects. Women who aren’t planning on having children or are past childbearing age may be tempted to exclude this supplement from their regimen. This supplement isn’t just beneficial for women of childbearing age, however.

Folate is particularly important for our health as we age. Older individuals may have difficulty absorbing folate due to underlying medical conditions or lifestyle changes. Supplementing with folic acid, whether through fortified foods or vitamin supplements, is an efficient way to get enough folate. Folic acid is packed full of health benefits for women and men of all ages, including improved digestion, cognitive function, and mental agility. It also reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke, and osteoporosis.

Folate and Folic Acid

Foods high in vitamin B9. Healthy food, sources of folic acid.

While it is common to see the terms folate and folic acid used interchangeably, there is a difference between them. Folate is a B vitamin, vitamin B9, that is found naturally in many foods. There are high levels of folate in leafy green vegetables like Brussels sprouts, spinach, and asparagus, as well as in some legumes, such as peanuts, black beans, and green peas. Animal products that contain higher amounts of folate include liver, crustaceans, shellfish, and eggs.

Folic acid is a synthetic supplemental form of folate, both as a vitamin and an addition to many foods. Folate is natural, but folic acid does not occur naturally. The following foods are likely to have been enriched with folic acid:

  • Bread
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Corn flour
  • Cornmeal
  • Pasta
  • Rice
  • Wheat flour

A regulation adding supplements to these products was created in 1998 to reduce the number of neural defects in newborns. While it is well known that expectant mothers require more folic acid than average, the damaging effects often occur early in pregnancy, before the mother is even aware that she’s pregnant. The FDA estimates that the benefits of the regulation outweigh the costs by at least 24 to 1.

Here are some of the benefits that supplemental folic acid provides beyond preventing neural defects.

Folic Acid is Good for Your Cardiovascular System

Heart health; doctor looking at the model of a heart

There have been numerous studies on the effect of folic acid on the cardiovascular system since the 1970s. One of the most noted effects is its effect on homocysteine levels. Homocysteine is a product found in the blood after protein is broken down. High levels of homocysteine in the blood are associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. Folate, especially when combined with vitamins B6 and B12, helps to convert homocysteine into methionine, an essential amino acid.

Supplementing with folic acid to increase folate for those with low folate levels may reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and hypertension. It does not seem to have as profound an effect on those who have already experienced a stroke or on individuals with adequate folate levels.

Folic Acid Improves Brain Function

Woman cutting up a watermelon; healthy eating

Low folate levels can affect cognitive function as well. Although studies have had mixed results, the consensus indicates that folate deficiency can increase the risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s. This may, once again, be due to high homocysteine levels. Increased levels of this byproduct have been linked to multiple types of dementia. In most cases, supplementing with folic acid appears to be protective against these disorders for individuals with low folate.

However, it is essential to consult with your doctor before adding any supplement to your diet. Those with low vitamin B12 levels may have the opposite experience. Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient as well, one that can’t be made by your body. Like other B vitamins, vitamin B12 must be introduced to the body via food sources or supplementation. While taking folic acid doesn’t reduce the amount of B12 in the body, in some cases, higher dose supplementation may obscure a vitamin B12 deficiency, which can lead to a decline in mental cognition.

But it has a Complicated Relationship with Cancer.

Doctor looking at an X-ray

Proper levels of folate help to facilitate and regulate cell regeneration, a key factor in the formation of cancers. Recent studies have shown that high levels of folate, whether natural or supplementary, can influence the formation and development of certain cancers. Unfortunately, that effect can be either positive or negative, depending on the amount and timing of the supplementation.

Supplementation with folic acid appears to block the initial formation of some cancers, including melanoma. This was especially for individuals with inadequate folate levels to begin with. Other studies have shown that higher doses of folic acid may actually promote the growth of precancerous and cancerous cells that are already present. One study conducted in Texas in 2018 found that supplementation with folic acid was also associated with a significantly greater risk of reoccurrence among patients that had been diagnosed with non-muscle-invasive bladder cancer.  

In Conclusion

Folate is an important vitamin for women of all ages. Inadequate levels of folate can have a detrimental effect on both the cardiovascular system and mental cognition. Including either fortified foods or adding a vitamin that includes folic acid to your daily regimen is an efficient way to introduce folate to your diet. Adding supplemental folic acid to your diet promotes healthy aging by reducing the risk of chronic diseases.  

Before adding any supplement to your daily diet, it is crucial to discuss it with your doctor. Low to moderate doses of folic acid are typically beneficial. However, for individuals who already have sufficient folate levels, the benefits of adding supplemental folic acid are less pronounced. However, higher doses of folic acid can obscure other disorders and may stimulate the reoccurrence of previous cancers and the growth of precancerous and cancerous cells.

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