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Folic Acid Is Vital to Health of Newborns

A report in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association finds that cases of two birth defects of the spine and brain have dropped nearly 20% since the government ordered foods such as cereal, bread, and pasta be fortified with folic acids.

Is there a direct connection? Dr. Bernadine Healy, a CBS News health contributor and president of the American Red Cross, talked with the Saturday Early Show about the topic.

While researchers at the Centers for Disease Control believe much of the credit goes to the fortification program, they cannot say if it accounts for the entire reduction, Healy says. Education may also play a part.

In the past few years, doctors have been educating women in their childbearing years about the importance of taking folic acid. Folic acid has been shown to prevent neural tube defects, which form in the first trimester of a pregnancy, often before a woman even knows she is carrying a baby.

What are neural tube defects?

They are a malformation of a structure called the neural tube and can cause conditions known as spina bifida and anancephaly, Healy explains. Spina bifida occurs when the vertebrae surrounding the spinal cord fail to fuse. It can lead to lifelong disabilities. Anencephaly is a condition where all or part of the brain is missing and the child dies at birth

Could the birth defect rate be even lower?

This is up for debate, says Healy. The researchers who conducted this study were hoping for a higher reduction rate: Some predicted as much as 50%. But that didn't happen, so over the next few years, scientists will look carefully at the possibility of increasing the fortification.

You say that everyone should get folic acids--not just pregnant women?

That's right, Healy says. Folic acids, which are in the family of B vitamins, have been shown to cut the rates of certain cancers, including cancer of the colon. Folic-acid supplementation has also been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering the amount of homocysteine in the blood. High homocysteine levels seem to damage the lining of the arteries.

Besides fortified products what are the other sources of folic acid?

Folic acids are found naturally in leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits, peanuts, and beans. It is recommended that women in their childbearing years get 400 micrograms of folic acid a day.

What about getting folic acids through supplements or a multivitamin?

While we always like people to get folic acids naturally through the fruits and vegetables I just mentioned, this is a situation where taking a multivitamin or supplement is a good idea, says Healy. Since the fortification program was started, an estimated 800 more healthy children were born who otherwise would have had birth defects. That is a big number, she says, especially when you are talking about such serious birth defects as spinal bifida or anencephly.

Several weeks ago we did a story about companies adding nutritional supplements such as ginkgo biloba or St. John's wort to their products. How is this different?

There is little or no scientific evidence showing that adding an herb such as gingko biloba to a product has a healthy benefit, Healy says. The fortification program, however, is based on sound science. Research has shown that folic acids protect against neural tube defects.
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