Vitamin B12: a vital nutrient as we age

Author: Corinne Bett   Date Posted:17 November 2015 

Vitamin B12 is a vital nutrient, required for many important functions in the body, including maintaining healthy cognitive function and the myelin sheath which protects nerve cells, producing red blood cells, and alongside folic acid, the production of DNA- the building block of every cell in our body.

Vitamin B12 can be produced only in very small amounts by bacteria in the gut, therefore to maintain adequate levels it must be consumed as part of a healthy diet or taken as a supplement. People in the over 60’s age bracket have an increased need for Vitamin B12, due to issues related to poor absorption of the vitamin and decreased dietary intake.  

Poor absorption

  • Vitamin B12, unlike other vitamins which are absorbed with a source of dietary fat or water, will not be absorbed unless it is bound to intrinsic factor; a molecule secreted by the gastric cells of the stomach, which also produce hydrochloric acid.
  • A condition called ‘Atrophic gastritis’ may occur in up to 30% of elderly people, and results in chronic inflammation of the cells of the gut lining. This inflammation can affect the production of intrinsic factor from the cells of the gut, and therefore the absorption of Vitamin B12.
  • As we age our digestion slows down, with our body producing less hydrochloric acid in the stomach and less saliva in the mouth, both of which contain specific molecules required for the absorption of Vitamin B12 in the small intestine. Some medications may also affect the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, which can in turn compromise the absorption of Vitamin B12.
  • Lack of hydrochloric acid production in the stomach can change the pH of the gastrointestinal tract, leading to overgrowth of detrimental bacteria, which compete for the absorption of Vitamin B12 for their own use.

 Limited Diet

  • As our digestion slows down as we age, our appetite can decrease, which can lead to a tendency to snack, rather than consuming nutrient rich wholesome meals. Our diet may also change as we get older, due to various social influences such as children leaving the family home, or the death of a partner – and cooking for one can seem like a real chore.
  • Sources of Vitamin B12 are obtained in the diet from animal foods, such as meat, which may be difficult for older people to digest. Vitamin B12 can be found in high amounts in animal milk, meat, liver, kidney, salmon, sardines, egg yolk and termites (if these little critters tickle your fancy!).

 Decreased Cognition

As we age, our nervous system may slow down, and we can experience cognitive decline such as memory loss. As Vitamin B12 is required for the healthy function of the nervous system, older people may then have an increased need for B12, to ensure that deficiency does not become an issue.

Vitamin B12 Deficiency symptoms

  • A swollen, inflamed tongue
  • Pale skin
  • Weakness/fatigue
  • Cognitive issues (difficulty thinking and reasoning), or memory loss
  • Numbness, or tingling in the hands, legs, or feet
  • Difficulty walking, balance problems

NB: If you have any of these symptoms please seek medical attention. If you are concerned you may be deficient in B12 or you would like to know what your B12 levels are, ask your doctor to have a blood test to have your levels checked.

Vitamin B12 Supplement

Some older people may find they are deficient in Vitamin B12, after consultation with their doctor. The recommended daily intake of Vitamin B12 from dietary sources is 2.4micrograms per day.

Due to issues with digestion/absorption in some older adults, supplementation of up to 1000 mcg per day may be necessary. In severe cases where digestion and absorption is an issue, a Vitamin B12 injection may be necessary.

If you are concerned you aren’t getting enough Vitamin B12 in your diet or not absorbing it properly, check with your doctor in regards to testing for possible Vitamin B12 deficiency and for intrinsic factor. See a naturopath or a nutritionist for handy tips on how to increase your dietary sources and absorption of vitamin B12.

Written by Corinne Bett

Corinne spent her childhood helping her mother and grandfather in the garden grow various herbs and vegetables. This sparked a great interest in herbal medicine and nutrition in later life, and a passion for a wholefood diet. As a Naturopath today, she likes to empower others to utilise food as medicine, and live a healthy and balanced lifestyle. In her spare time she like to spend time in nature bushwalking and swimming, adventuring in far and exotic places, and dreaming about what kind of dog she might like to have one day.