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Signs & Symptoms of Vitamin B12 Deficiency in the Elderly

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Signs & Symptoms of Vitamin B12 Deficiency in the Elderly
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Signs & Symptoms of Vitamin B12 Deficiency in the Elderly

November 19, 2018

Good nutrition is an essential part of aging well. One of the most important aspects of good nutrition for the elderly is a healthy level of vitamin B12. Our bodies need this vitamin, also called cobalamin, to make parts of our DNA, to make red blood cells and to keep our nerve cells working well, among other things. We get vitamin B12 from eating animal products, as well as from multivitamins and from foods that have been fortified with it.

Woman hand holding different vitamins

What Causes Low Vitamin B12 in Older Adults?

Most people, including seniors, get enough vitamin B12 from food, supplements or a combination of the two. But because our bodies naturally get worse at absorbing this vitamin as we get older, seniors are at risk of developing vitamin B12 deficiency symptoms even if they get enough of the vitamin in their diet. In fact, according to Harvard, up to 20 percent of people over age 50 may have a vitamin B12 deficiency.

In addition to the increased risk caused by aging, a senior’s risk of vitamin B12 deficiency increases if he or she:
  • Takes certain medications, such as metformin to treat diabetes or antacids to reduce stomach acid
  • Has medical conditions related to the stomach or small intestine, such as Crohn’s disease, or has had weight loss surgery or another surgery that removed parts of those organs
  • Follows a vegetarian or vegan diet
  • Drinks heavily

Vitamin B12 Deficiency Symptoms

Vitamin B12 deficiency causes a form of anemia, a condition in which the blood doesn’t contain enough healthy red blood cells. Symptoms usually come on slowly as the deficiency goes from mild to more serious. Vitamin B12 deficiency symptoms can include:
  • Pale or jaundiced skin
  • Inflamed tongue
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Tingling sensations in the hands or feet
  • Trouble walking
  • Blurred vision
  • Shortness of breath or dizziness
  • Changes in thinking, memory and mood

These symptoms are common in seniors who don’t have a vitamin B12 deficiency and can be caused by many other conditions, so it’s easy for people, including doctors, to miss that a deficiency is present. For this reason, if an elderly loved one has some of the symptoms or the risk factors mentioned above, ask their doctor to order a blood test to check whether their vitamin B12 levels are low. 

Treatment of Vitamin B12 Deficiency in Elderly People

If a blood test shows low levels of B12, a doctor may prescribe an oral supplement that contains very high doses of the vitamin, intramuscular shots of vitamin B12, or both. Shots often work better than oral supplements, because they allow the vitamin to bypass the stomach and intestines, making it easier for some older people to absorb it. Vitamin B12 isn’t toxic, even at high levels, so you don’t have to worry about your loved one getting too much of it.

Knowing what vitamin B12 is and how to identify vitamin B12 deficiency in the elderly is an important part of caring for an aging loved one. If someone you care about tests positive for low levels of vitamin B12, you can take comfort in the fact that, unlike many of the other problems associated with aging, vitamin B12 deficiency is something that can be easily managed.

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