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Vitamin B12 Deficiency & Dementia

By Kevin Bliss

Dementia has come to be regarded as a common -- almost expected -- part of growing old for most people. Additionally, many view it as a condition for which there are very few treatment options, according to an article on Psychiatry Online. Recently, however, there has been increasing focus on the possibility that a deficiency of vitamin B12 may be a contributing factor in dementia, raising the hope that addressing such deficiencies might help stem the effects of this condition so frequently associated with Alzheimer's disease.

The Importance of Vitamin B12

Experts at the Mayo Clinic point out that vitamin B12 helps in maintaining the health of nerve cells and red blood cells. Vitamin B12 is also instrumental in the formation of DNA, the genetic material in all cells. Fish, shellfish, meat and dairy products serve as the most reliable dietary sources of vitamin B12 -- all of which factor prominently in the diets of many people. Vegetarians--particularly vegans--may have difficulty obtaining the daily requirements of B12 due to their reluctance to consume any animal-based foods.

Signs of Vitamin B12 Deficiency

Deficiencies of vitamin B12 present most commonly as fatigue, loss of appetite, constipation, weight loss and difficulty maintaining balance, as noted by the National Institutes of Health. Additionally, depression, confusion, poor memory and dementia can also occur in individuals running low on B12. Researchers claim that the accumulation of hymocysteine in the blood that occurs in the absence of vitamin B12 warrants attention. Hymocysteine, they say, might be related to an inability to metabolize neurotransmitters. Thus, hymocysteine appears to be one way in which cognitive function problems can be tied directly to B12 deficiencies.

Groups at Risk

The risk of vitamin B12 deficiency increases with certain groups. Chief among these are vegetarians/vegans, individuals with pernicious anemia and those who have had gastrointestinal surgery. Older people also have higher risk of the deficiency. According to NIH, atrophic gastritis -- a condition affecting 10 to 30 percent of older adults -- has the effect of reducing the amount of vitamin B12 in the body. This arises from the fact that atrophic gastritis has been determined to prevent the absorption of B12 occurring naturally in food. Synthetic forms -- such as B12 supplements -- don't present the same difficulties with atrophic gastritis, but it is recommended that you consult a physician before taking this approach to increasing B12 consumption.

Addressing Dementia

Vitamin B12 deficiency cannot account for all instances of dementia. Psychiatry Online points out that dementia is a frequently occurring syndrome in the elderly population tied into a variety of factors. Alzheimer's disease accounts for a certain portion of the occurrence of dementia, as does the natural decline in brain activity that accompanies advanced age. However, vitamin B12 deficiency, unlike most other contributing factors in dementia, can be addressed. The use of supplements typically improves levels of B12 in the human body. While this may not reverse the effects of dementia entirely, some believe that the difficulties experienced by those suffering from dementia can be diminished.

A Case Study

One case study that reflects this hope for the vitamin B12 impact on dementia is described in an article written by Norbert Goebels, M.D. and Michael Soyka, M.D. They report on a 64-year-old male who was hospitalized for confusion and collapse. The man had been growing progressively senile over time, but the trip to the hospital came as the result of serious impairment of cognitive functions. Signs of B12 deficiency -- including weight loss and lack of appetite -- were also reported, prompting treatment featuring vitamin B12. Five weeks into the regimen, physicians reported that the man's cognitive abilities were noticeably better. Goebels and Soyka are quick to point out that these findings are not conclusive. They do acknowledge, however, that such instances appear encouraging as a potential new way in which to address dementia.

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