We're currently in the midst of National Folic Acid Awareness Week. This span of time – Jan. 5 through 11 – focuses on spreading the word of the importance of this nutrient within pregnant women. That's because it's required for the proper growth of cells and getting too little during pregnancy can lead to birth defects of the spine and brain. However, folic acid is essential for people of all ages and in all stages of life, and seniors need this nutrient to maintain health and wellness throughout their golden years. Get informed by reading the answers to these common questions about folic acid:

What is folic acid?
This nutrient is a B vitamin (B9) that humans need for cellular growth. It's water soluble, which means your body does not store folic acid, also known as folate, so it must be replenished continually. As with others in the B complex, folate helps you turn carbohydrates taken from food into usable energy, and it assist in the processing of fats and proteins for utilization by the body. This vitamin also contributes to the health of your hair, skin and eyes as well as the nervous system. 

Many people don't realize it, but it's quite common to have low levels of folic acid. Deficiency is particularly common among people who suffer from celiac disease, alcoholism and inflammatory bowel disease, and some medications can reduce the amount of this nutrient in your body. Chronic deficiency can lead to a variety of health issues, including appetite loss, gingivitis, mental fatigue, poor memory and diarrhea.

How does it affect senior health?
This essential vitamin provides a wide variety of health benefits for older adults. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, a study showed that people who take supplements containing this substance effectively slowed the progression of hearing loss related to aging. Another trial suggested that such supplements may help women reduce their chances of developing age-related macular degeneration – a condition of the eyes that can lead to blindness. Some scientists also believe that folic acid can help reduce the risk of certain cancers, including breast, cervical and stomach. That's because lower cancer rates have been linked to health levels of the B vitamin; however, it's still unknown precisely how folate plays a role in reducing the disease.

In addition to these benefits, recent research into the effects of folic acid on seniors has revealed that the vitamin may enhance memory in the elderly. A Dutch clinic looked at the test scores of more than 800 adults who took either placebos or folate supplements over the span of three years. Researchers found that those who took the pills had significant improvement in memory and a slower decline in scores over the duration of the study compared to the control group.

Seniors who suffer from depression may also benefit from increasing their folic acid intake. The University of Maryland Medical Center reported that, though the evidence is inconclusive, clinical research has suggested that people with depression tend to have folate deficiencies – and the lower the levels, the more severe the condition. It's also been shows that patients who have trouble shaking their symptoms even with the help of antidepressants typically had low amounts of the B vitamin, though more exhaustive studies are needed to confirm this.

Where do I get folic acid?
The B9 vitamin can be found in natural foods. Everyday edibles that are high in this nutrient include:

  • Spinach
  • Mustard greens and other dark leafy greens
  • Asparagus
  • Turnips
  • Beets and other root vegetables
  • Lima, kidney, white and mung beans
  • Soybeans
  • Brussel​s sprouts
  • Beef liver
  • Whole wheat
  • Salmon
  • Avocado
  • Orange juice

Eating a wide variety of nutritious foods is the best way to get your daily intake of the vitamin. In the U.S., folic acid is also fortified into all cereals and grain products. If you're still having trouble getting enough in your diet, you may want to contact your physician to come up with a health plan. He or she may suggest that you take a supplement.

Is there such thing as too much folic acid?
While too little can be detrimental to your health, too much folate can also be harmful. In fact, a 2010 study by the University of California, Davis, Medical Center found that excessive levels of this nutrient might be responsible for causing complications in the  metabolic system, possibly leading to anemia and neurological damage. That's why it's essential to talk with your health care provider and determine the right dose for your body before starting a folic acid supplement regimen.

Another concern is that folate supplements can interfere or have bad reactions with specific medications. For example, methotrexate, which is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and cancer, may negate the effects of the prescription drug.