New research from the Netherlands appears to have uncovered one more piece of compelling evidence why adequate folic acid intake is so important: it may help prevent fetal heart abnormalities developed very early on in pregnancy.
In the study, published online on December 1, 2009, for an upcoming issue of the European Heart Journal, researchers used a national register of birth defects to identify 611 mothers who had given birth to a child with a heart defect, matching them to 2,401 women who delivered babies with genetic defects or other birth defects unrelated to folate. Women who took a supplement containing at least 400 micrograms of folic acid were nearly 20 percent less likely to have a child with a heart defect, compared to other non-folate-related malformations. Compared to the general population (who may or may not have taken folic acid), the risk for heart problems was 26 percent lower.
Among women taking folic acid, the risk of having a child with a heart defect involving the septum—which separates one side of the heart from the other—was nearly 40 percent lower than that of the general population.
The March of Dimes and other women's health organizations recommend all women of childbearing age take a daily, 400 microgram, folic acid supplement to prevent spina bifida and other birth defects involving the neural tube. The current study couldn't show whether taking more or less than 400 micrograms of folic acid would be more effective in preventing heart defects, the researchers note, although there's increasing evidence that heavier women may need to take more folic acid to get the same protective effect. Further investigation into the connection between folic acid levels and heart defect prevention is planned.