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How Folate Can Help Prevent Birth Defects

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The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that about 2,500 infants with spina bifida and anencephaly are born each year in the United States. Other maternal factors also may contribute to the development of neural tube defects, including:

  • family history of neural tube defects

  • prior neural tube defect-affected pregnancy

  • use of certain antiseizure medications

  • severe overweight

  • hot tub use in early pregnancy

  • fever during early pregnancy

  • diabetes

If you are concerned about these factors, consult your doctor.

Folate Link

Scientists first suggested a link between neural tube birth defects and diet in the 1950's. The incidence of these conditions has always been higher in low socioeconomic groups in which women may have poorer diets. Also, babies conceived in the winter and early spring are more likely to be born with spina bifida, perhaps because the mother's diet lacks fresh fruits and vegetables--which are good sources of folate--during the early weeks of pregnancy.

In 1991, Brtiish researchers found that 72 percent of women who had one pregnancy with a neural tube birth defect had a lower risk of having another child with this birth defect when they took prescription doses of folic acid before and during early pregnancy.

Another study looked at folic acid intake in Hungarian women. The evidence indicated that mothers who had never given birth to babies with neural tube defects and who took a multivitamin and mineral supplement with folic acid had less risk in subsequent pregnancies for having babies with neural tube defects than women given a placebo.

These studies led the U.S. Public Health Services in September 1992 to recomment that all women of childbearing age capable of becoming pregnant consume 0.4 mg of folate daily to reduce their risk of having a pregnancy affected with spina bifida or other neural tube defects.

That corresponds to FDA's Daily Vaule for folic acid, which is 400 micrograms for nonpregnant women, as well as children 4 and older and adult men. For pregnant women, the Daily Value jumps to 800 micrograms. Daily Values are dietary reference numbers on the Nutrition Facts panel on food labels to show the amounts of various nutrients in a serving of food. Many women between 19 and 50 consume much less than 400 micrograms of folate a day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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