Q: Why is vitamin B12 important for health?
A: Vitamin B12 is required for proper nerve function, including the nerve cells in the brain needed for memory. Vitamin B12 helps another B vitamin, folate, in its role in making new cells. Vitamin B12, folate and vitamin B6 also help maintain normal levels of homocysteine, which is naturally produced in the body as a result of the breakdown of proteins. Large amounts of homocysteine may increase the risk for Alzheimer's disease and diseases that result in a loss of mental function.
Q: What may happen if I'm deficient in Vitamin B12?
A: According to K-State Extension Nutrition Specialist, Mary Meck Higgins, a deficiency of Vitamin B12 can cause pernicious anemia. A diagnosis of this type of anemia can easily be missed, particularly in older adults.
Common symptoms of pernicious anemia are weakness in the legs, difficulty in walking and balancing, tingling and numbness in the hands and feet, and nerves becoming highly responsive to any mild stimulation. Vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to mental confusion, mild depression, apathy or irritability and can progress to dementia. Victims may also suffer loss of appetite and weight, indigestion and periodic diarrhea. These problems can develop before one is diagnosed with a B12 deficiency. In its early stages, these symptoms can be reversed, but if the deficiency is not caught within a few months, the damage can be permanent.
Q: I understand that I should be more concerned about vitamin B12 as I get older. Why?
A: The level of acid in the stomach decreases with age. Low levels of stomach acid result in less absorption of food-bound vitamin B12. Adults older than age 50 years are advised to meet their need for this vitamin mainly by consuming foods fortified with vitamin B12 or a B12 supplement.
Q: What foods contain vitamin B12?
A: Naturally-occurring, food-bound Vitamin B12 is found ONLY in animal protein foods. These include meat, fish, poultry, eggs and milk products. Some of the cereals and other grain products on the market are fortified with Vitamin B12, which means that the vitamin has been added during processing.
Q: How much vitamin B12 do I need?
A: For adults ages 50 years and older, the Dietary Reference Intake for Vitamin B12 is 2.4 micrograms, or mcg., which can be obtained by following dietary recommendations from the Food Guide Pyramid, in particular for animal products:
Consume 2-3 dairy servings each day. A serving of dairy includes 1 cup of milk or yogurt, 1 1/2 ounces of natural cheese or 2 ounces processed cheese.
Consume 2-3 servings of meat, poultry, eggs, fish, dry beans, or nuts each day. A serving includes 2-3 ounces of lean cooked meat, poultry or fish, 1/2 cup cooked dry beans, 1 egg, 2 tablespoons of peanut butter or 1/3 cup nuts.
Q: If I don't eat animal products, will I get enough Vitamin B12?
A: Check the labels of foods, such as cereals, to see if they contain vitamin B12. A supplement containing Vitamin B12 is usually recommended to individuals who don't eat animal products.
Q: What kind of Vitamin B12 supplement is best?
A: Higgins recommends checking with your doctor before taking a Vitamin B12 supplement. Follow the label about when to take it and how many tablets to take at a time. Choose a generic supplement brand because it will cost less. On many multi-vitamin/mineral supplements, Vitamin B12 is listed as its chemical name, cobalamin. The most bioavailable form -- the kind easiest to absorb -- is cyanocobalamin.