Neural tube defects in Mexican-Americans living on the United States-Mexico border: The effects of folic acid and dietary folate

Lucina Suarez, The University of Texas School of Public Health


Neural tube defects (NTDs) are malformations of the developing brain and spinal cord; the most common are anencephaly and spina bifida. Evidence from many populations suggests that 50% of NTDs can be prevented through daily consumption of folic acid. A recent study has reported that folic acid may not protect populations of Mexican descent. This finding has serious implications for women living along the US-Mexico border. Not only is risk high in these Mexican American women compared with other US women; they also differ markedly in supplemental folic acid and dietary folate consumption, and in NTD-related risks (e.g., obesity, diabetes). This case-control study investigated whether folic acid supplements and dietary folate reduces NTDs in Mexican Americans. Cases included liveborn, stillborn, electively and spontaneously aborted NTD-affected fetuses and infants occurring in the 14-county Texas-Mexico border. Controls were randomly selected from unaffected live births, frequency matched to cases by hospital and year. An in-person interview of 110 case and 113 control mothers solicited data on folic acid supplements, dietary folate, and other covariates. Consumption of folic acid-containing vitamins before conception was only 5% for both case and control women. Taking vitamins the trimester before conception had no apparent effect, after adjusting for covariates [odds ratio (OR) = 1.0, 95% confidence interval (CI) = 0.3–3.4]. Combining folate from vitamins and diet showed a 20% risk reduction for women consuming at least 400 μg of folate daily [OR = 0.8, 95% CI = 0.5–1.5]; however, this estimate is statistically indistinguishable from the null. Although consistent with an inherent ineffectiveness of supplemental folic acid, that so few women consumed multivitamins during the critical time severely limited the assessment of folic acid in this population. A reduced folate response in Mexican descent women may be due to a genetic heterogeneity for metabolizing folate. Alternatively, folate intakes may be insufficient to overcome other underlying risk factors. In conclusion, determining whether folic acid reduces NTD risk in Mexican American women requires further study in populations with higher folic acid exposures. Meanwhile, we should pursue all recommended prevention strategies to reduce risk, including motivating Mexican American women of childbearing age to take folic acid routinely.

Subject Area

Public health|Nutrition|Neurology|Cellular biology

Recommended Citation

Suarez, Lucina, "Neural tube defects in Mexican-Americans living on the United States-Mexico border: The effects of folic acid and dietary folate" (1998). Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). AAI9916070.