The B-12 Battle: Elderly may be most at risk for deficiency

Growing older carries more risks, among them the risk for vitamin B-12 deficiency. Emerging evidence points to B-12 deficiency as an increasingly common reason behind high levels of homocysteine in the blood — a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases. Deficiencies of folic acid (folate) can also cause high levels of homocysteine. The metabolism of these two vitamins is closely intertwined and deficiency of either one produces identical effects of anemia. Deficiencies of both are commonly found among the elderly.

B-12 is consumed through food sources such as meat, liver, fish, yogurt and many dairy products, and can also be taken through injections and supplements. B-12 is important as it helps build red blood cells and keeps the nervous tissues in tip-top shape. Apart from high homocysteine levels, B-12 deficiency can also result in anemia (lower levels of red blood cells) and damage to the nervous system. Common symptoms for the deficiency are fatigue from anemia, mental confusion and sensory and movement difficulties.

It is estimated that up to 15% of those over age 60 have varying degrees of B-12 deficiency. The longer their deficiency goes undetected, the longer their brains and nervous systems will undergo progressive deterioration, culminating in a greater risk for the Alzheimer’s-like dementia as well as paralysis.

The key to preventing B-12 deficiency is a balanced diet, particularly among the elderly. But some individuals, despite following a nutritious diet plan, may not be able to absorb a food’s vitamins due to problems such as a diseased stomach. Therefore, annual screening is recommended. If a deficiency is found, patients may opt for monthly injections or highly absorbable daily B-12 supplements, such as methylcobalamin or “methyl B-12.”

American Association for Clinical Chemistry, July 18, 2003