Women who take folic acid supplements before conceiving and in the early weeks of pregnancy may reduce their child’s risk of severe language delays, a Norwegian study found.
The children of women who took folic acid supplements four weeks before to eight weeks after conception had about half the risk of severe language delays, including unintelligible speech, at 3 years old compared with children of women who took no folic acid, according to research released today by the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Women are encouraged to take folic acid, a B vitamin found in vegetables, fruits and whole grains, before they become pregnant and throughout their pregnancy to help a fetus’s neural tube develop properly into the spinal cord and brain, according to the March of Dimes. Today’s study is the first to show that using folic acid as advised can reduce a child’s severe language delays, lead study author Christine Roth said.
“The reduced risk of severe language delay was associated with folic acid supplement use in the early period around conception, in very much the same period for when women should use a folic acid supplement to prevent neural tube defects,” Roth, a doctoral student in the Division of Mental Health at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health in Oslo, said today in an e-mail. “So women should follow the public health advice of starting to take a folic acid supplement before they become pregnant.”
It is unclear how folic acid might work in the developing fetus to reduce severe language delays at age 3, the authors said. Folate is important for cell growth and the replication and repair of DNA, Roth said. The vitamin also is involved in the process that turns genes on and off.
Further Research Planned
More studies are needed to determine how folic acid prevents language difficulties. The researchers plan to follow up with the children in the study when they are 5 years old.
Folic acid has been used to fortify flour and grains in the U.S. and other countries for the past decade because it reduces congenital spinal cord defects. Norway doesn’t supplement its flour and grains with folic acid.
Today’s findings show another role for folic acid in a child’s development, said Jill Rabin, chief of ambulatory care, obstetrics and gynecology at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, New York.
“It sort of expands upon the benefits of folic acid around the time of conception,” Rabin, who wasn’t an author of the paper, said today in a telephone interview. “We know that folate is good. There’s no reason to do anything different except continue your folate, that’s the message.”
Decade of Data
The research involved the children of women who were part of the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study, which recruited pregnant women from 1999 to December 2008. The authors assessed children born before 2008 whose mothers submitted a three-year follow-up questionnaire.
Of the 38,954 children in the study, 204 had severe language delays, defined as speaking in one-word utterances or unintelligibly at age 3. Of those, 103 were born to mothers who didn’t take folic acid or took supplements without folic acid and 101 were children of mothers who took folic acid alone or in combination with other supplements.
The study showed that the children of mothers who took folic acid before conception and in early pregnancy had a 45 percent lower risk of the language disability.
No reduced risk of severe language delay was seen in the children of mothers who started taking folic acid supplements after the eighth week of pregnancy, Roth said. However, she cautioned that was a small group of women.
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