UW study links low folic acid levels to heart disease

When your mom told you to drink your orange juice and eat your spinach but your fussy taste buds refused, you may have started on the road to heart disease. UW researchers have found a “strong link” between diets lacking folic acid—found in high levels in orange juice, spinach and dried beans—and heart-related problems.

In an Oct. 4 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, UW scientists noted that diets low in folic acid have high levels of homocysteine, a byproduct of protein digestion.

“High homocysteine levels can cause arteriosclerosis—thickening of the arteries—which can result in heart attacks, strokes and premature death,” says UW Epidemiology Professor Shirley Beresford. The UW study estimates that up to 10 percent of deaths from coronary artery disease in U.S. men over age 45—about 35,000 deaths per year—are attributable to high homocysteine levels.

The study data suggests that increased folic acid in the diet is the most effective means of lowering the basal level of homocysteine, but researchers said that more work is needed to prove that folic acid will always reduce these levels.

Beresford led a team of UW researchers through a review of 38 previous studies to understand folic acid’s effect on heart disease. The team suggests several steps to increase folic acid intake in the U.S. population: add two or three daily servings of fruits and vegetables—especially orange juice, spinach and dried beans; have those not taking supplements take 400 micrograms of folic acid daily; and fortify flours and cereal products with folic acid.