For seniors who want to keep their memory and mental skills sharp, researchers now recommend Vitamin B12 supplements. That’s because our ability to absorb B12 often declines with age, which can lead to a cascade of mind and body problems. Here’s the latest thinking on B12 supplements for healthy senior brains.
How aging can reduce B12 absorption
Your body can only absorb the B12 found in meat and dairy foods if it makes enough stomach acid. As we age, acid production declines. Up to 30% of seniors are unable to absorb enough B12 from food, which is why doctors and researchers are now suggesting supplements. Without enough B12, people can slowly develop severe memory, mood, and balance problems.
As health writer Jane Brody notes in her New York Times column, B12 deficiency is also a risk for vegans and vegetarians, people who take proton-pump inhibiting medications for reflux, people with some digestive diseases, and those who’ve had stomach surgery. These people may also benefit from taking an over-the-counter B12 supplement.
B12 deficiency symptoms to watch for
The Mayo Clinic says that many signs of B12 deficiency in seniors are sometimes missed because they look like other conditions, such as dementia. If you notice these changes, ask your doctor about them. He or she may want to run a B12 test.
- Tingling feeling in the hands and/or feet and legs
- Physical weakness
- Mobility and balance problems, especially problems with walking
- Personality changes, depression, dementia, and (rarely) psychosis
- Lack of appetite and constipation
- Weight loss
Anemia is related to B12 deficiency, too, although not all anemias are caused by lack of B12 and B12 deficiency can appear on its own without anemia. The good news is that B12 symptoms usually can be reversed if they’re caught and treated early. Severe symptoms may not be reversible, which is why prevention and early treatment are important.
How much B12 should seniors take?
The B12 dosing guidelines for older adults are somewhat vague. The recommended daily intake for adults in general is 2.4 micrograms, with older people needing more to make up for decreased absorption. How much more is an open question. The Mayo Clinic says there’s no danger of B12 overdose, and you can buy supplements with doses ranging from 500 to 5,000 micrograms.
However, even for patients with a confirmed lack of B12, the National Institutes of Health recommends 2,000 mcg per day after a course of B12 injections, eventually tapering down to as little as 1,000 mcg per month. For most seniors, Brody’s column in the Times recommends no more than 1,000 micrograms per day. As with any supplement, it’s a good idea to ask your doctor first to make sure your supplements won’t interfere with any medications you take.
If you’re adding B12 supplements to your parents’ diet, you should also talk to their home health aides or their nursing home staff to make sure they’re aware of the change. You can find more healthy eating ideas on the SeniorAdvisor.com blog.