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DHS news release

The following guest opinion was published in the Sept. 2005 issue of ORHealth, a magazine distributed at 300 outlets in Marion, Polk and Yamhill counties. It was written by Ken Rosenberg, DHS medical epidemiologist.


Length: 655 words


A daily dose of folic acid can make the difference of a lifetime


By Ken Rosenberg



Did you know that taking a daily dose of folic acid -- at a cost of about a nickel a day -- can help improve health, prevent heart disease, cancer and even birth defects?


Folic acid is a simple B vitamin that helps with tissue growth and cell function. In recent years it has been broadly promoted to women of child-bearing years, because it has been shown to prevent birth defects if the woman is taking it prior to becoming pregnant.


But the good news is that women -- and men -- of all ages can benefit from folic acid because it helps bodies build healthy cells.


As a medical epidemiologist, I monitor health trends and stay abreast of current medical literature and research as they relate to children and women's health. And recently, I've started taking a daily multivitamin that contains folic acid because I believe, as the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.


Folic acid is found in many foods including green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits and fortified cereal. Since 1998, all bread and grain products sold in the U.S. must be fortified with folic acid.


But fortified grains provide women with only 25 percent of the recommended 400 micrograms (mcg) per day, and it's difficult to get enough folic acid just from eating vegetables and fruits.


If you decide to get your daily allowance of folic acid by eating fortified cereal, there are two things you can do:

  • First, check the label on the box to make sure each serving contains 400 mcg of folic acid.
  • Second, be sure to consume all the milk in the bowl. That's because fortification is done by spraying folic acid on the cereal--and it's water soluble. So merely eating the cereal and leaving the milk also leaves the folic acid behind!


The best option is to take a multivitamin containing 400 mcg of folic acid every day to get adequate protection and health benefit. These can be purchased at most grocery, discount or drug stores.


A note for women who may become pregnant: Folic acid has been shown to prevent birth defects. The most common of these are neural tube defects, including spina bifida, a common cause of serious disability and even death.


The folic acid must be taken prior to conception. That's because the neural tube, which later becomes the baby's spine and brain, forms during the first 28 days of pregnancy--usually before a woman knows she's pregnant.


In Oregon, about 30 babies a year are born with neural tube defects. Folic acid can prevent 50 to 70 percent of these birth defects. Yet a recent survey among Oregon women of childbearing age found that only 40 percent were taking the recommended daily dose of folic acid.


Although scientists don't know exactly how folic acid works to prevent neural tube defects, they do know it's an essential part of tissue formation and proper cell growth. Additional studies are under way to further understand the role of folic acid in preventing cancer, heart disease and birth defects.


In any case, it's a good idea for everyone to be sure to get enough folic acid. Here's how:

  • Take a daily vitamin that has folic acid. Be sure and check the label. It should say 400 mcg or 100 percent next to folic acid. You can also take a vitamin pill that has only folic acid in it.
  • Eat a daily serving of breakfast cereal that contains 100 percent of folic acid. Be sure and check the label on the box to see that a serving contains 400 mcg or 100 percent of folic acid.
  • Eat a healthy diet of fruits and vegetables, particularly green leafy vegetables and citrus fruits.


Note: Folic acid may sometimes be referred to as folate.


It's inexpensive, it's good for both men and women, and it may prevent life-altering health consequences.


Ken Rosenberg, M.D., M.P.H., is a medical epidemiologist in the Oregon Department of Human Services Office of Family Health.