Folate and other B vitamins seem even more of a wonder drug than anyone suspected: Already known to prevent severe birth defects and heart attacks, they may also ward off broken bones from osteoporosis, two major studies suggest.
The findings underscore doctors' long-standing recommendation that people take multivitamins. They could also further support the government's decision to require bread and cereal makers to fortify their products with folate, also known as folic acid.
B vitamins are known to reduce levels of homocysteine, an amino acid already linked, at high levels, to an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes and Alzheimer's disease. Now research shows high levels of homocysteine at least double the risk of osteoporosis-related fractures.
A report from Holland found that the risk of such fractures was twice as high in men and women with homocysteine levels in the top 25 percent, compared with those with lower levels. Similarly, a U.S. study found the risk nearly quadrupled in the top 25 percent of men and nearly doubled in the top 25 percent of women, compared with the 25 percent with the lowest levels.
"The basic way to keep your homocysteine down in a healthy range is to have plenty of B vitamins," said Dr. Douglas Kiel, senior author of the U.S. study and director of medical research at Hebrew Rehabilitation Center for Aged Research and Training Institute in Boston.
The studies were reported in today's New England Journal of Medicine.
Kiel said a standard multivitamin, taken once a day, would bring a person's homocysteine levels below the danger point. Foods naturally rich in B vitamins and calcium -- including dairy products, broccoli and other green, leafy vegetables, carrots, avocados, cantaloupes, apricots, almonds and peanuts -- also can reduce the risk of broken bones.
Since 1998, when the U.S. government began requiring that folate be added to bread, cereal and other flour products, the resulting drop in Americans' homocysteine levels has been credited with preventing about 48,000 deaths from heart attacks and strokes each year. Also, severe brain and spinal birth defects have dropped 27 percent.