Are you in your golden years? Then it’s important to know that between 12 and 15% of people aged 65 and older have a Vitamin B12 deficiency – a risky problem that can have a major impact on your overall health and quality of life.
Vitamin B12 has several important functions in the body. It helps keep your nerve and blood cells healthy, plays a role in protein metabolism, and helps make DNA (the carriers of your genetic information).
Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble vitamin which, among other things, means that it isn’t stored in the body for very long. So, you need to get regular doses, either the food you eat or from supplements.
Causes of Vitamin B12 deficiency
One of the most common causes of Vitamin B12 deficiency is a diet that doesn’t provide sufficient quantities of the vitamin.
Research shows that people who follow strict vegetarian or vegan diets typically have much lower levels of Vitamin B12 after about five years than people who eat meat, fish, eggs, milk, cheese and other Vitamin B12-rich foods.
A lack of a certain protein in the stomach that’s necessary for the absorption of Vitamin B12 is another common cause. Some people also can’t absorb the vitamin because of partial removal of the stomach or intestine during surgery.
As you reach your 60s, 70s and 80s, your risk for Vitamin B12 deficiency also increases because your body might not be able to absorb the vitamin as efficiently as it used to.
In addition, if you’re taking any chronic medication (e.g. medication for reflux, stomach ulcers or diabetes), these may interfere with the vitamin’s absorption, leading to a deficiency.
Other possible causes of Vitamin B12 deficiency include:
- Chronic alcoholism.
- Gastro-intestinal disorders (e.g. Crohn’s or coeliac disease).
- Pancreatic disease.
- Liver disease.
- Kidney disease.
Signs of Vitamin B12 deficiency
If you don’t have sufficient Vitamin B12 in your body, your cells can’t divide as they should. This could affect the number of red blood cells in your body, leading to a condition called pernicious anaemia. Vitamin B12 deficiency can also cause several neurological problems.
Signs and symptoms of the deficiency include:
- Weak muscles.
- Trouble walking.
- Stiffness and weakness of the legs.
- Numbness, tingling and/or burning of the feet.
- Nausea and/or diarrhoea.
- Decreased appetite.
- Weight loss.
- Fast heart rate.
- Cognitive decline.
- Waxy, lemon-yellow tint to the skin and eyes.
- A smooth, beefy red tongue.
It’s important to get tested properly if you think you may have a deficiency. The deficiency isn’t always easy to diagnose, but it can be easily managed.
Help at hand
First, assess your diet. Are you getting enough of the vitamin through the foods you eat?
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for Vitamin B12 is 2.4 micrograms per day. Good sources include:
- Liver (71 micrograms per 90g serving).
- Yoghurt (1.1. micrograms per 250ml serving).
- Milk (1.2 micrograms per 250ml serving).
- Fish (5.4 micrograms per 90g of rainbow trout).
- Eggs (0.6 micrograms per egg).
Whether you eat these foods or not, it’s important to discuss supplementation with your doctor. Your doctor will also treat you for any possible underlying conditions that may be causing your B12 deficiency.
- Mahan, LK. Escott-Stump, S. Raymond, JL. Krause’s Food and the Nutrition Care Process. 13th Elsevier.