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Major new risk factor for heart disease

VANCOUVER, CANADA. It is becoming increasingly evident that an elevated blood level of homocysteine is a potent risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Recent studies also suggest that high homocysteine levels may be associated with kidney disease, psoriasis, breast cancer, and acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Extensive past research has shown a close link between the development of neural-tube defects in babies and the mother's homocysteine level prior to and during pregnancy. Researchers at the University of British Columbia have just released a major report which summarizes the current knowledge about homocysteine and its effect on health. Homocysteine is formed in human tissues during the metabolism of methionine, a sulfur-containing essential amino acid. A normal, desirable level is 10 micromol/L or less. A level of 12 micromol/L is considered borderline and levels of 15 micromol/L or above are considered to be indicative of increased risk for cardiovascular disease. Several factors (age, smoking, vitamin deficiencies, and genetic abnormalities) have been linked to increased homocysteine levels. Medications that interact with folate such as methotrexate, carbamazepine, phenytoin, and colestipol/niacin combinations have also been linked to increased homocysteine levels.

The researchers reviewed 23 studies dealing with the association between atherosclerosis and homocysteine levels and found that patients with vascular diseases had an average level of homocysteine that was 26 per cent higher than the level in healthy subjects. One study found that a homocysteine level of 4 micromol/L above normal corresponds to a 41 per cent increase in the risk of developing vascular disease. Another study estimates that the lives of 56,000 Americans could be saved every year if average homocysteine levels were lowered by 5 micromol/L. The researchers conclude that abnormally high homocysteine levels are a potent risk factor for cardiovascular and several other diseases. They point out that elevated homocysteine levels can, in most cases, be safely and effectively lowered by supplementation with as little as 400 micrograms per day of folic acid. Other researchers have found that a combination of folic acid (0.4-10 mg/day), vitamin-B12 (50-1000 micrograms/day), and vitamin-B6 (10- 300 mg/day) is highly effective in lowering homocysteine levels. (153 references)

Medical doctors at the University of Wisconsin echo the findings of the Canadian researchers in a separate report and describe a case of a 57-year-old man who lowered his homocysteine level from 29 micromol/L to 2 micromol/L by supplementing with 800 micrograms/day of folic acid for two months.
Moghadasian, Mohammed H., et al. Homocysteine and coronary artery disease. Archives of Internal Medicine, Vol. 157, November 10, 1997, pp. 2299-2308
Fallest-Strobl, Patricia C., et al. Homocysteine: A new risk factor for atherosclerosis. American Family Physician, Vol. 56, October 15, 1997, pp. 1607-12

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