A new study has suggested women who take folic acid for at least one year before they become pregnant may reduce their risk of having a premature baby by half.
The results are significant given the serious human and economic costs of premature births as preemies are at an increased risk of complications such as cerebral palsy, mental retardation, chronic lung disease and blindness.
The study, conducted by scientists from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston analyzed folate supplementation of 38,033 participants in an earlier trial sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.
The effect holds regardless of age, race or other health factors, they say.
Dr. Alan R. Fleischman, senior vice president and medical director of the March of Dimes, says it has been known for a long time that folic acid supplementation beginning before pregnancy and continuing into the first trimester helps prevent serious birth defects of the brain and spinal cord.
"[The new] research reinforces our message that every woman of childbearing age should consume 400 micrograms of folic acid daily," he adds.
The study was published online in the journal PLoS Medicine.