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Do you have an elderly relative who is showing progressive memory loss? Have the doctors diagnosed it as a case of senile dementia or Alzheimer’s. Chances are she may be suffering from vitamin B12 deficiency, commonly seen in elderly and easily treatable.
Quite often you’ll see that an old patient, suffering from a decline in cognitive functions coupled with memory loss, is diagnosed as suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and treated accordingly. But more often than not, his condition deteriorates. When investigated completely, it comes to light that the patient is suffering from a deficiency of vitamin B12.
Vitamin B12 is essential for the development of blood cells, and for the proper functioning of the nerve cells. Doctors are usually taught in the medical schools that a deficiency of this vitamin may lead to pernicious anemia and irreversible nerve damage. However, most of the doctors tend to forget that these two conditions develop late after the onset of deficiency.

Initially, the deficiency of vitamin B12 is symptomless and progresses insidiously. The early symptoms of its deficiency include weakness, lethargy, tingling sensation in fingers and toes, unsteadiness of gait, decline in cognitive functions and depression. Vitamin B12 is a frequent cause of memory loss in people of old age. As some of these symptoms closely mimic the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, doctors often miss the diagnosis of vitamin B12 deficiency.

Vitamin B12 deficiency is more common in Vegetarians

Vitamin B12 deficiency is more common in vegetarians. This is because vitamin B12 is primarily found in liver, fish, meat, poultry, milk and milk products. Vegetables and fruits generally lack this vitamin. Though some amount of vitamin B12 can be stored in the liver, being a water soluble vitamin, it cannot be stored in large quantities. Therefore, vegetarians have to constantly depend upon fortified cereals or vitamin B12 supplements to meet their daily dietary requirements. 

An adult requires around 2.4 micrograms of vitamin B12 daily. The requirement increases to 2.6 micrograms daily in case of pregnant women and 2.8 micrograms daily in case of women who are breast feeding their infants. Deficiency symptoms begin to appear when the blood levels of vitamin B12 fall below 250 picograms per milliliter of blood.

According to statistics provided by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost one in every thousand persons in the U.S. suffers from vitamin B12 deficiency. This figure rises to an alarming 10 in every 31 adults above the age of fifty. This is because vitamin B12 is found combined to proteins in animal food. It is released only when the acid present in the stomach acts upon it, in the presence of a specific intrinsic factor.

The acid production reduces in almost 30% of older people. However, the absorption of vitamin B12 obtained from artificial sources is not dependent upon the stomach acid. Therefore, it is recommended that people above 50 years should consume fortified food or take vitamin B12 supplements so that their daily intake of this vitamin is around 25 to 100 micrograms everyday.

In case vitamin B12 deficiency is detected, patients are advised to take 2000 micrograms of Vitamin B12 supplements for a month, followed by 1000 micrograms for a month and then 1000 micrograms every week. This supplementation can be in the form of vitamin B12 injections, sub-lingual patches or orally.

But one thing is certain. In case your patient shows any signs of forgetfulness, get him tested for the levels of vitamin B12, before attributing these symptoms to Alzheimer’s disease. CDC too recommends that all patients with unexplained decline in cognitive functions or dementia should be tested for possible vitamin B12 deficiency.