Vitamin B12: Keeping Seniors Healthy and Energetic

In this article...
  • Maintaining proper levels of vitamin B12 is essential to aging well. Learn how to recognize the symptoms of B12 deficiency and prevent health problems.
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Why Is B12 Important for Older Adults?

Vitamin B12 is important for older adults because it plays an essential role in red blood cell formation, bone health and neurological function. Most Americans get the recommended daily amount of 2.4 micrograms a day from the foods they eat. However, studies show that older adults are among the groups most likely to be at risk for B12 deficiency. Left untreated, this deficiency can cause serious and sometimes irreversible health problems. 

What Causes B12 Deficiency?

While some people simply don’t consume enough of the vitamin to meet their needs, others may have trouble absorbing it. Malabsorption is especially common in older adults due to the decrease in stomach acid production that normally occurs with aging. Stomach acid is needed to absorb B12.

Older adults with pernicious anemia and gastrointestinal disorders such as celiac disease or Crohn’s may have B12 troubles. The deficiency is also common among people who follow strict vegetarian diets and those who have had weight-loss surgery. Sometimes, the exact cause of B12 deficiency is unknown.

Symptoms and Diagnosis of B12 Deficiency

It’s estimated that 5-15% of adults are deficient in B12. The signs can develop slowly over time or seem to come on quickly. Symptoms may include:

  • Anemia
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Constipation
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sore tongue or mouth
  • Balance problems
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Depression or changes in mood
  • Confusion
  • Forgetfulness

Since these symptoms are similar to many other conditions associated with aging, they are sometimes overlooked. If you have any concerns, it's a good idea to ask your doctor to check your B12 levels with a blood test and physical exam.

Treatment of B12 Deficiency

Early diagnosis and treatment are key to stopping and reversing any blood disease or neurologic decline associated with B12 deficiency. While the vitamin can be found in a wide variety of foods — including fish, red meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products and fortified grains — higher dose dietary supplements may be needed for older adults with absorption problems.

With supplements, vitamin B12 is usually prescribed as cyanocobalamin, a synthetic form that is more readily available for the body to absorb and convert. The dosage is based on your medical condition and level of deficiency, and it may be administered with:

  • Oral tablets
  • Sublingual lozenges
  • Nasal spray gel
  • Intramuscular injections

Why B12 Treatment Is Important for Older Adults

Supplemental vitamin B12 usually has no side effects, and it's non-toxic so there is little concern for harm or overdose. Even better, the body responds rapidly to an uptake in vitamin B12 by reducing the severity of symptoms in just weeks to months. 

Scientists continue to research the connection between vitamin B12 levels and cognitive, cardiovascular and bone health. In the meantime, adults age 50 and older may benefit from a daily supplement to boost health and prevent the functional decline associated with B12 deficiency.