In mid-20th century United States, deaths from vascular disease reached a peak incidence in 1955, but little was known about the underlying causes of this epidemic of disease. The significance of homocysteine in human disease was unknown until 1962, when cases of homocystinuria were first associated with vascular disease. Analysis of an archival case of homocystinuria from 1933 and a case of cobalamin C disease from 1968 led to the conclusion that homocysteine causes vascular disease by a direct effect of the amino acid on arterial cells and tissues.
The homocysteine theory of arteriosclerosis attributes one of the underlying causes of vascular disease to elevation of blood homocysteine concentrations as the result of dietary, genetic, metabolic, hormonal, or toxic factors. Dietary deficiency of vitamin B-6 and folic acid and absorptive deficiency of vitamin B-12, which result from traditional food processing or abnormal absorption of B vitamins, are important factors in causing elevations in blood homocysteine. Numerous clinical and epidemiologic studies have established elevated blood homocysteine as a potent independent risk factor for vascular disease in the general population.
Dietary improvement, providing abundant vitamin B-6, folic acid, and cobalamin, may prevent vascular disease by lowering blood homocysteine. The dramatic decline in cardiovascular mortality in the United States since 1950 may possibly be attributable in part to voluntary fortification of the food supply with vitamin B-6 and folic acid. Fortification of the US food supply with folic acid in 1998, as mandated by the US Food and Drug Administration, was associated with a further decline in mortality from vascular disease, presumably because of increased blood folate and decreased blood homocysteine in the population.