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Sunday, 10 December, 2000, 23:55 GMT
Confusion over folic acid benefits
Vitamins may reduce the risk of heart disease
Vitamins may reduce the risk of heart disease
Researchers in America have advised people at risk of heart disease to take folic acid to help prevent the illness.

Taking folic acid can help to lower homocysteine, a key body chemical, high levels of which may be linked to heart disease.

But a UK expert has warned patients to wait for clinical trials to be completed so the full picture can be seen.

The researchers, from the University of Michigan say people should start taking their daily dose without waiting for the outcome of ongoing research into the area.

Research author Gilbert Omenn said: "It will take years for current clinical trials to tell us how much we can reduce heart disease risk by reducing homocysteine levels.

"This analysis suggests we should go ahead and encourage blood-testing and increased intake of folic acid and B12 through diet or supplements."


It will take years for current clinical trials to tell us how much we can reduce heart disease risk by reducing homocysteine levels

Gilbert Omenn
Research author

But UK expert Dr Philip Lewis, a cardiologist at Stepping Hill Hospital in Stockport, said people should wait for clinical trials to be completed.

"If that was the right advice, we would all be doing it right now."

And he said there was not yet conclusive evidence that taking folic acid would significantly lower people's chances of heart disease, or how vitamins C, B12 and B6 affected homocysteines.

He added: "Ethically speaking, I can't give someone advice if something's not proven."


If that was the right advice, we would all be doing it right now

Dr Philip Lewis
UK cardiologist

Homocysteine is present all over the body. But high levels can increase the risk of clogged arteries and heart disease, which have been linked to between six and 10 % of all heart deaths in America.

Vitamin boost 'beneficial'

The University of Michigan scientists said the vitamin-boost would be most beneficial for those whose blood tests showed a high level of homocysteine.

Assuming homocysteine levels were cut by 40%, eight extra years of life per 1,000 men could be saved, and almost four years per 1,000 women - whether vitamins were taken by all those at risk, or just those with high levels of homocysteine.

But they said screening to identify those with high levels of the acid would cut long-run costs by up to 60%, because vitamins would then be targeted at those who needed them most.

They said even if men's risk of developing heart disease was cut by 11% and women's by 23%, taking folic acid and vitamin B12 would be worthwhile.

Previous studies have had mixed results, with some showing people with even slightly high homocysteine levels are at risk of heart disease.

An estimated 40% of men over 40 and 32% of women over 50 fall into this category.

Scientists have already said that 400 micrograms a day of folic acid is the optimum amount to reduce homocysteine levels.

Vitamin B6 and B12 also help.

A spokeswoman for the British Heart Foundation said it encouraged people to eat food rich in folic acid.

"Evidence is growing that raised homocysteine levels are a risk factor for the development of coronary heart disease - and we also know that a deficiency in the vitamin folic acid can lead to increased levels of this protein.

She added more research was needed.

The research is published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

See also:

18 Nov 99 | Health
21 Nov 00 | Scotland
14 Nov 00 | Health
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