Eating a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and protein foods helps you get the vitamins and minerals you need to keep your body in tip-top shape. Many vitamins are named after letters of the alphabet, and much like we put letters together to make words, we need all kinds of vitamins to work together to keep our bodies healthy.
Vitamin B12, for one, is critical for well-being in multiple ways – and it’s of special importance for older adults.
Why is Vitamin B12 Important?
This essential nutrient helps make DNA – the genetic material inside our cells – and keeps red blood cells and the nervous system healthy. It’s needed to help support energy metabolism as well as physical energy and stability.
How Much Do I Need?
Although it’s found in a variety of foods – particularly animal-based products, like fish, meat and dairy – people over the age of 50 are at an increased risk of developing a deficiency. That’s because older adults have a harder time absorbing vitamin B12.
What Causes Vitamin B12 Deficiency?
Getting enough of vitamin B12 is one thing, but absorbing it is another. During digestion, both stomach acids and gut proteins are needed to properly breakdown our food and transport the vitamin into the bloodstream. As we get older, our body loses the ability to make these acids and proteins, making it harder to get the nutrient into circulation.
In fact, vitamin B12 deficiency is common and can affect up to 43% of older adults.
Other factors that may lead to low vitamin B12 levels include:
- Medications to treat gastric acid or diabetes. Talk with your doctor if you take these medications, and certainly before you start taking vitamin B12 supplements – or any supplements – as they may interfere with these medications.
- A strict vegetarian or vegan diet. Because this B vitamin is primarily found in animal foods such as beef, poultry, fish, eggs and milk, people who avoid these foods are at risk for low vitamin B12 levels.
- Conditions affecting the gastrointestinal tract. Crohn’s and celiac disease cause inflammation in the digestive tract, which makes absorbing vitamin B12 from the diet more difficult.
- A history of bariatric surgery. Gastric bypass and other surgeries of the stomach can limit the body’s ability to absorb nutrients as well.
- Pernicious anemia. Though relatively rare, this autoimmune disease attacks the stomach and interferes with vitamin B12 absorption. Pernicious anemia affects less than one-half of one percent of the U.S. population, and more women than men.
What are Signs of a Vitamin B12 Deficiency?
Most vitamin deficiencies develop over time and are hard to identify, since the signs are common to other conditions. If you have low levels of vitamin B12 you may experience physical symptoms, such as tiredness, weakness, loss of balance or tingling in the hands and feet.
Other symptoms can include memory loss, confusion and depression.
If left unchecked, a deficiency can even lead to nerve damage, so early action is important. Fortunately, most symptoms can be reversed once vitamin B12 levels are back where they need to be.
How to Get the Vitamin B12 You Need
Vitamin B12 is found naturally in animal foods, but you can also find it in fortified plant-based foods and beverages. Some of the best food sources are:
- Liver and organ meats
- Shellfish such as clams, oysters and mussels
- Nutritional beverages and shakes
- Breakfast cereal
Here’s a fun fact: the vitamin B12 that’s added to foods such as nutritional drinks or breakfast cereals tends to be better absorbed than vitamin B12 found in animal foods. That’s because the fortified version isn’t bound to the food’s protein and is more readily available to the body!
Talk to your healthcare provider for questions or concerns about any diet or lifestyle changes and to find a plan that's right for you.