High Folate Intake May Lead to Better Grades for Adolescents

Increased blood levels of the amino acid homocysteine and decreased levels of folate are of particular concern in adolescents, because both influence the cognitive development of the brain. The recent study investigated the relationship between academic achievement and   homocysteine and folate levels. It also took into account the socioeconomic status of the 386 Swedish adolescents aged 15 years involved in the study. It found a correlation between decreased homocysteine and increased folate, and good academic performance. Socioeconomic status did not affect the correlation.

Folate is a form of vitamin B. Vitamin B deficiency is linked to increased levels of the amino acid homocysteine. Abnormal metabolism of homocysteine has been linked to mental retardation and to psychiatric conditions such as depression, and even dementia in the elderly. MTHFR is an enzyme involved in the metabolism of folate and homocysteine. A part of the gene for this enzyme shows great variability and may affect levels of homocysteine. Brain development in childhood is affected when genes for folate uptake are mutated. High doses of folinic acid reverse the symptoms. The authors hypothesized that consuming too little folate and/or having high blood levels of homocysteine could negatively affect intellectual development. They reasoned this would be reflected in poor academic achievement.

* Details about present health, health habits (such as smoking), and family educational and economic status were collected using a questionnaire.
* Standard laboratory assays for homocysteine were performed. Dietary intake of folate was estimated from interviews. Total blood DNA was purified in order to sequence variability in the gene MTHFR, which is involved in the metabolism of folate and homocysteine.
* School grades for 10 subjects, each graded as “zero”, “five”, “10” or “20” points, were obtained.
* Data was statistically analyzed independently for boys and girls.

* Girls showed better academic performance than boys, while boys had higher folate intake and higher homocysteine concentration than girls.
* Homocysteine concentrations were unaffected by smoking, but academic performance was poorer among smokers.
* The academic performance was found to be markedly better with low homocysteine levels and high folate intake.
* Variability in the MTHFR gene, mother’s income, father’s education, and intake of magnesium did not affect the academic achievement of the adolescents.
* Having an educated mother as well as attending a good school both played an important part in the academic performance of adolescents.

Shortcomings/Next steps
The study is based on too few participants in just one country. It also suffers from uncertainties about the amount of folate consumed. The effects of school breakfast and its monitoring can affect long-term folate intake. Efforts should be made to improve diet to enhance academic performance and to identify folate-rich foods. Since academic performance is also affected by parental help with homework, this factor needs to be considered. Finally, specific cognitive functions affected by folate deficiency should be studied.

Eating a folate-rich diet positively affects performance in school by 15-year-old adolescents after 9 years of schooling. Extreme vitamin and iron deficiencies are known to undermine the academic performance of adolescents. The findings of this study are important because performance in school affects childrens’ future goals and achievements. The difference between the achievements of girls and boys, referred to as the “girl effect”, is independent of folate and homocysteine levels. Academic performance is unaffected by family income and educational levels of the father. Monitoring of folate intake or providing it in school breakfasts may improve the intellectual development of children.

For More Information:
High Folate Intake is Related to Better Academic Achievement in Swedish Adolescents
Publication Journal: Pediatrics, 2011
By Torbjörn Nilsson; Agneta Yngve, Örebro University Hospital, Örebro, Sweden; Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden; Akershus University College, Lillestrøm, Norway

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