Vitamin B12 is an essential vitamin for proper brain functioning. Unfortunately, a decrease in B12 levels is commonly seen with increased age. Deficiencies in B12 can cause or worsen cognitive difficulties, sometimes mistaken for memory loss or early dementia in seniors.
Causes of Vitamin B12 Deficiency
According to the Mayo Clinic, the body stores several years worth of Vitamin B12 in the liver. Even so, some people are still deficient. In seniors one area of concern is a reduced ability to absorb vitamin B12 from food. As people age, stomach acid production slows reducing the absorption of B12. Reduced absorption limits the B12 available for brain functions. This can be seen as forgetfulness or even smaller brain volume. This is true even with diets containing foods rich in vitamin B12. A supplement may be recommended to increase available B12.
Some other conditions that have the potential to contribute to a B12 deficiency include alcohol intake, diabetes medications such as Metformin, surgies involving the lower intestine and weight loss reduction surgeries. Other conditions, such as stomach ulcers and digestive impairments such as irritable bowel syndrome, IBS, colitis and Crohn’s disease, may be treated with stomach acid reducing medications which can decrease the absorption of B12. Seniors frequently use acid-reducing products to lessen the effects of heart burn, but without realizing the effect it has on vitamin absorption!
Signs of Vitamin B12 Deficiency
Symptoms that may signal a lack of Vitamin B12, according to Harvard Medical School, include:
- Yellow skin
- Tingling hands, legs and feet
- Balance difficulties
- Swollen tongue
The Mayo Clinic adds anemia to the list, as difficulties absorbing B12 can contribute to anemia. Other studies, such as the one presented by Neurology show lower brain volumes and limited thinking in seniors with low levels of Vitamin B12. Researchers at Rush University Medical Center measured B12 markers in blood samples of 121 older residents outside of Chicago. When four out of the five markers for B12 deficiency were seen, subjects tested lower on cognitive skills.
Concerns with Vitamin B12 and Aging
A decrease in B12 levels is more commonly seen with increased age. According to the Journals of Gerontology, those with functional levels of deficiency were approximately 9.6% for those ages 30 to 60 rising to 14.2% in people over the age of 90. Researchers studied patients at five Paris hospitals and found that 4.6% of people ages 50 to 90 were deficient in Vitamin B12, or had levels lower than 200 ng/L. 24.2% had medium levels of B12 and ranged between 200 and 350 ng/L. Those with levels lower than 350 ng/L were considered functionally deficient and were approximately 12.6% of the group.
Where does Vitamin B12 Come From?
The vitamin is found in animal foods such as fish, liver, turkey, red meats and eggs. It is connected with the proteins in these foods and when it contacts stomach acid, B12 breaks free and is then absorbed in the blood stream. Vitamin B12 is not found in plant-based foods, so vegetarians are at a higher risk of deficiency.
Vitamin B12 Supplements
Vitamin B12 is a water soluble vitamin, so it is difficult to ingest too much – the body expels what it does not need. Even so, supplements should be taken responsibly and under the direction of a medical professional.
The Institute of Medicine suggests a supplemental Vitamin B12 in a pill, sub-lingual lozenge or injectable liquid. An oral pill is easiest, but if there are concerns about absorption the other forms of vitamin b12 may be better suited.
The benefit of injecting B12 is that is does not depend on stomach acid levels to be absorbed and is a nice alternative for those who have difficulty swallowing pills. The New York Times reports a reduction in the deficiency symptoms with injectable Vitamin B12. Injectable B12 improves energy levels and may repair some cognitive functions, plus can enhance balance and reduce discomfort in the hands, legs and feet.