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A Vitamin That Packs A Punch

A Vitamin That Packs A PunchTufts researchers have found new connections between folate and Alzheimer's, reinforcing the importance of the vitamin's impact on healthy aging.

Boston [02.26.02] For more than a decade, researchers at Tufts have found links between a lack of the vitamin folate and a host of health problems including heart attacks, cancer and strokes. And new research released by Tufts this month adds Alzheimer's to the list of health problems that appear to have a correlation with low levels of the vitamin.

"An eight-year study of 1,000 elderly people by scientists at Tufts and Boston Universities found that those who started out with high levels of homocysteine were far more likely to develop Alzheimer's later in life," reported the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

According to the Tufts researchers, homocysteine -- which is a naturally occurring amino acid -- tends to appear in high levels in people who don't get enough folate in their diets.

The finding, reported the New York Times, suggests that diet and nutrition may help determine whether people develop Alzheimer's later in life. Four million people have the disease in the United States alone.

"That doesn't mean that if you have high homocysteine levels, you will get Alzheimer's, or that low homocysteine levels will protect you," reported Time Magazine. "But the case for adding folic acid to your diet is getting better all the time."

Since the early 1990s, Tufts researchers including Irwin Rosenberg, Jacob Selhub and Paul Jacques, have been studying the connections between folate, high homocysteine levels and many health problems.

According to their research, high homocysteine levels -- which tend to appear in people who don't get enough folate -- can be very damaging to blood vessels, a condition linked to heart attacks and strokes.

"It injures the cells that line arteries and stimulates the growth of smooth muscle cells; both effects can result in lesions that narrow the channels through which blood flows," reported the New York Times. "Homocysteine can also disrupt normal blood clotting mechanisms, increasing the risk of clots that can bring on a heart attack."

But keeping homocysteine levels in check isn't too difficult for most people.

"Three B vitamins -- folic acid (also called folate), B6 and B12 -- are involved in processing homocysteine to keep it from building up in the blood to levels that can cause harm," reported the Times. "Of the three, folic acid is the most important."

Other research from Tufts and the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging has continued to show the importance of getting enough folate.

In a study released last year, Tufts researchers found a connection between low folate levels with poor memory skills.

"The survey of 1,200 seniors found that those who had higher levels of the B vitamin in their blood were generally able to remember more of the main details of a story than those with lower folate levels," reported the Toronto Sun.

The best sources of the vitamin, say the Tufts experts, are leafy greens and fortified grains.

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