Evidence for the critical role of lifestyle factors such as nutrition in dementia risk is mounting. A new study now adds weight to indications that folate, or folic acid, deficiency could be a contributor.
Folate is a natural form of vitamin B9 that is needed to form red blood cells.
It also helps to break down homocysteine, which can impact blood flow to the brain and nerve cells and has been linked to risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
The study’s findings
Israeli researchers investigated the medical records of more than 27,000 people aged 60 to 75 years with no pre-existing dementia through a national healthcare provider. Blood folate levels were measured from 2013 to the end of 2017.
Nearly 13% of participants had folate levels less than 4.4 ng/mL, defined as folate deficiency. After controlling for other potential risk factors such as diabetes, depression, cognitive decline, vitamin B12 deficiency and smoking, this corresponded with a notably increased risk of dementia or death over that period.
Specifically, people with folate deficiency were 68% more likely to be diagnosed with dementia and nearly three times more likely to die from any cause. In actual numbers, 3.5% developed dementia and nearly 8% died compared to just over 3% and 4% in people without folate deficiency, respectively.
It’s important to note that this is an observational study, and the authors report they can’t rule out reverse causality, meaning that it’s possible people became folate deficient after developing pre-clinical dementia.
What does it mean?
Dementia rates have been escalating around the world and this debilitating condition is now the second leading cause of death in Australia, after heart disease, overall and the leading cause of death in women.
The condition causes a progressive breakdown in brain function, impacting cognition, memory, emotions and behaviour. The brain atrophy can start occurring up to three decades before symptoms develop, which are most likely to become apparent after the age of 65.
Most importantly, research suggests that around a third to half of cases can be prevented by improving lifestyle habits. This includes eating a healthy, plant-based diet – and ditching sugar and highly processed food – and regular physical activity.
A traditional Mediterranean-style diet, high in plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds and moderate amounts of seafood, eggs and dairy, delivers many essential nutrients for brain and body health including folate.
Folate itself abounds in foods such as spinach, asparagus, black-eyed peas and wheat germ. Other greens such as romaine lettuce also contain decent amounts, as do avocado, broccoli, mustard and turnip greens, green peas, Brussels sprouts, red kidney beans, oranges and tomatoes.
For a yummy snack try a handful of peanuts with a smoothie made from papaya and banana – these also make the top 20 best folate-containing foods. And don’t forget to stay physically and mentally active doing things you enjoy for an all-round healthy aging recipe.