B alert for stealth vitamin deficiency

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A deficiency of the vitamin B12 can cause a host of problems, from fatigue to poor memory, that can be misdiagnosed simply as symptoms of aging. Jane Brody s column in The New York Times reports this week on the importance of recognizing how frequently a B12 deficiency can develop as people age, as well as the importance of detecting and treating this problem before it progresses, since B12-deficiency nerve damage can be irreversible.

Vitamin B12 serves multiple functions: It is essential for maintaining the nervous system, producing DNA, and forming normal red blood cells. Without enough B12, a person may experience symptoms that include muscle weakness, fatigue, depression, shakiness, and cognitive problems.

As we age, we become less able to absorb adequate amounts of B12 from food. In fact, up to 30 percent of older adults may not have enough stomach acid to enable sufficient absorption of B12. Besides aging, there are several other risk factors for vitamin B12 deficiency. The only natural sources of significant amounts of B12 are animal products, so many vegetarians, and especially vegans, as well as their breastfeeding infants, will not receive enough B12 in their diet. Others who are at risk of a deficiency include heavy drinkers, people who have had certain stomach surgeries, and those who take the diabetes drug metformin or particular anticonvulsants.

Vitamin B12 deficiency is, in fact, simple to prevent. It is recommended that people over 50 eat a well-rounded diet that includes meat, as well as fortified foods, such as cereal, or take B12 supplements of 25 to 100 micrograms daily. ACSH s Dr. Ruth Kava believes that testing for levels of B12 should be a regular part of the clinical work-up for older people, as well as for those who do not eat animal products. By testing vitamin B12 levels, a deficiency and its negative effects can be avoided, she says.