Good nutrition is an essential part of ageing well. A healthy level of vitamin B12 is considered to be one of the most important aspects of good nutrition in elders. Now, you may wonder, what is vitamin B12? Our bodies require this vitamin for generating and keeping our red blood cells and nerves healthy, proper neurological functioning and DNA synthesis. We get Vitamin B12 when we consume animal and dairy products, foods that have been fortified with it, and supplements. For elderly people, vitamin B12 is very important. Its benefits include:
• Boosting cognition
• Providing support to the immune system
• Offering support for bone health
• Enhancing cell growth
• Promoting gut health
However, when people grow older, their susceptibility to vitamin deficiencies also increases. A low intake of vitamin B12 is a common but serious issue that needs to be addressed, but is generally something that is overlooked until it leads to significant health problems.
By becoming aware of the symptoms and risk factors of vitamin B12 deficiency in elders, one can be in a better position to detect the signs and opt for testing at an early stage. If you are wondering what the symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency are in the elderly or senior citizens, here is a brief guide to help you.
What is Vitamin B12?
This vitamin is a member of the vitamin B complex group. It is a water-soluble essential vitamin that is also known as cobalamin because it contains the metal cobalt. Vitamin B12 is synthesized by bacteria and can be found in dairy products, meat, and eggs.
It is said that B12, along with folic acid, may help in preventing mood disorders, dementia, and disorders of central nervous system development. It is also believed that a mild decrease in the levels of vitamin B12 is related to psychiatric and neurologic problems.
The Effect of Vitamin B12 Deficiency in Older People
The most common health problems in the elderly associated with low vitamin B12 levels are:
• Cognitive impairment
Damaged nerve cells in the brain can lead to irritability, depression, memory problems and dementia as well.
Elderly people are said to have this condition when the nerves of their body are not working well. It can cause many symptoms, such as numbness, tingling, poor balance, trouble walking.
In this condition, a person has a low red blood cell count. Since red blood cells are the carriers of oxygen in the blood, anaemia can lead to shortness of breath or fatigue as well. Jaundice may also occur due to the faulty red blood cells.
How Does the Body Process Vitamin B12?
Vitamin B12 is digested and stored in a total of three steps after consumption:
1. It gets processed by acids and enzymes present in the stomach and small intestine.
2. The small intestine absorbs the vitamin.
3. It is then stored in the body (primarily in the liver).
Vitamin B12 stored in the body can fulfil the body’s needs for a few years, and only a small amount is required on an every-day basis. Even if a healthy person puts an end to their consumption of vitamin B12, it will take a few years before their body displays any signs of deficiency.
What Causes Low Vitamin B12 Levels in Older People
Most people, which also includes seniors, get enough amounts of vitamin B12 from their food, supplements, or a combination of both. However, as the ability of the body to absorb vitamin B12 decreases as we grow older, seniors face a risk of developing symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency even when they are getting enough amounts of this vitamin through their diets. So, it is important to pay attention to what causes vitamin B12 deficiency.
The common risk factors for low levels of vitamin B12 in the elderly are:
• Low levels of stomach acid.
• Alcoholism, which irritates the stomach and is sometimes associated with a poor diet.
• Surgeries that remove all or parts of the stomach/small intestine.
• Medication that intervenes with the absorption of vitamin B12.
• Any issue that leads to poor absorption in the small intestine/stomach.
You can always approach your doctor to find out more about what illness may cause vitamin B12 deficiency and what your risk factors are.
What are the Symptoms of Vitamin B12 deficiency in the Elderly or Senior Citizens?
As mentioned before, the deficiency of vitamin B12 can cause a form of anaemia, which is a condition where the blood does not have enough healthy red blood cells. Symptoms typically start showing up slowly as the deficiency starts to go from mild to more serious. Some of the most common symptoms that you can look out for are listed below:
• Pale or jaundiced skin
• Fatigue and weakness
• Inflamed tongue or sore mouth
• Trouble in walking
• Tingling sensations in the feet or hands
• Blurred vision
• Changes in mood, thinking, and memory
• Dizziness or shortness of breath
• Constipation or lack of appetites
These symptoms are quite common in older people, even in those who do not have a deficiency of vitamin B12, as they can be caused by several OTHER conditions as well. That is why it is easy for people (including doctors) to not notice that one is suffering from a vitamin B12 deficiency. So, if an elder whom you know or are related to has risk factors or the symptoms mentioned above, you can always ask their doctor to order a blood test to check if their levels of vitamin B12 are low. It is important to remember what the symptoms of low B12 are so you can take a proactive step at the right time.
Another reason why vitamin B12 deficiency often gets missed in elders is that a lot of people go through long periods of mild deficiency of vitamin B12. In such a situation, a senior may barely take note of their symptoms or may think that the symptoms are being caused by some other chronic health condition.
Foods that contain Vitamin B12
Meat, Chicken, Fish and Eggs. Milk, Cheese, Paneer, Curd, Buttermilk, Khoya. Fortified Breakfast Cereals, Energy Bars, Brown Rice.
Note: It is also important to know the common risk factors associated with developing a vitamin B12 deficiency. These include having pancreas issues, intestinal issues and more.
Knowing what the vitamin B12 deficiency is, what the causes of vitamin B12 deficiency are, and how to recognise the issue is important for both elders and the individuals caring for their ageing loved ones. In the early stages, changes in diet can go a long way in dealing with the deficiency. You can opt for an online dietician consultation to find out more about the best foods with vitamin B12 that you can include in an elder’s diet.
Our elders often have to deal with numerous health issues. Let’s ensure that we make a conscious effort to identify the ones that can be easily treated. At Emoha, we offer the best elder care services at home, right from access to verified nurses, regular health monitoring, sensors for home safety to emergency support and much more. For us, it is always #EldersFirst.