7 Reasons To Aim For More Vitamin B12 Than You?re Probably Getting Now

For many people, vitamin B12 brings to mind injections to boost energy. While this relates to the vitamin’s traditional role of keeping red blood cells healthy, emerging research reveals that B12 offers many other benefits (see “Vitamin B12’s Links to Better Health,” page 6). Moreover, recent evidence reveals that even the low end of so-called “normal” B12 levels can create havoc with health, prompting scientists to view this nutrient in a whole new light.

Some experts even suggest that B12 could rival vitamin D as the latest key nutrient that many Americans?especially older people?don’t get enough of and could benefit from more. Most people, however, don’t need injections.

“Inadequate B12 levels are quite common?and harmful?but fortunately are easily treated,” says neurologist J. David Spence, M.D., a B12 researcher at Robarts Research Institute in Ontario, Canada. Here’s what an examination of the latest research suggests that B12 can do, followed by tips to help you get enough of this important vitamin.

1. To Boost Brain Power. “A high B12 status helps you maintain a healthy brain,” says Anna Vogiatzoglou, M.Sc., R.D., one of the researchers involved in a recent University of Oxford study. It found that older people with lower-than-average B12 levels were six times more likely to show signs of brain shrinkage, a possible forerunner to impaired cognitive function and Alzheimer’s disease.Even B12 levels that are above the traditional cutoff for deficiency?and seemingly adequate?may impair cognition in older people. In one study, a high blood level of methylmalonic acid (a sensitive measure of B12 status that rises when the body has too little B12) predicted faster declines in cognitive health.

2. To Deter Depression. B12’s involvement with brain health may help explain its link to depression. A classic study from the National Institute of Aging found women with low B12 levels were more than twice as likely to develop depression as women with normal B12 status. Newer research from Spain confirms the connection, but found that a low B12 intake led to more depression only among women, not men.

3. To Beef Up Bones. In the Framingham Offspring Osteoporosis Study of 2,567 men and women, those with low B12 levels had lower-than-average bone mineral density. In another study, frail women were more likely to have low B12 levels, as measured by blood markers. Being frail increases the likelihood of falls, which lead to fractures. B12 appears to help bones by aiding osteoblasts (bone-building cells) and lowering levels of the amino acid homocysteine, which at high levels weakens bone by interfering with collagen cross-linking.

4. To Curb Cancer. Supplementing with high doses of B vitamins (B12 and others) in hopes of warding off chronic diseases has not generally yielded positive results. However, when Harvard researchers zeroed in on women over 65 who were supplementing with B vitamins (including extremely high doses of B12?e.g., 1,000 micrograms), the researchers found the women were 25% less likely to develop invasive cancer of any kind and 38% less likely to develop breast cancer in particular. B12’s role in making DNA may be partly responsible, as well as the fact that older people often require more B12 to make up for a reduced ability to absorb the vitamin.

5. To Ease Eye Disease. Another benefit observed in the same Harvard study was at least a 34% reduced risk of age-related macular degeneration for women aged 40 and older. By lowering homocysteine and providing antioxidant effects, blood vessel function in the eye improved after supplementing with 1,000 micrograms of B12.

6. To Halt Hearing Loss. There may be a connection between B12 deficiency and hearing. One study found that low blood levels of vitamin B12 were linked to a higher risk of hearing loss in a small group of healthy women in their 60s.

7. To Alleviate Anemia. Till now, anemia that developed after age 50 was thought to be due to insufficient B12. But a new study from the Netherlands challenges this assumption. Looking at a group of 85-year-olds, the researchers found no relationship between B12 levels and anemia. Even the researchers were surprised by these results, cautioning that the same conclusion might not apply to middle-aged people.

Pernicious anemia, however, is synonymous with B12 deficiency. It occurs only in people who lack a digestive substance called intrinsic factor that’s needed for B12 absorption. Lifelong B12 supplementation’typically by injection?is the only treatment.

Rising Requirements, Recommended Ranges. As we age, our stomachs produce less gastric acid?a condition referred to as atrophic gastritis?which reduces the body’s ability to absorb naturally occurring vitamin B12 that’s bound to protein in foods like red meat. People who regularly take acid-lowering medications like Prilosec, Prevacid and Zantac increase their risk for impaired B12 absorption.

Much debated is what constitutes a desirable blood level. There are two different units of measure used by labs and a wide range of what’s called “normal.”

“But normal doesn’t necessarily mean adequate,” cautions Robarts? Spence. In his view, a B12 of less than 350 picomoles per liter or less than 474 picograms per milliliter is not optimal. Experts agree it’s reasonable to ask your doctor to check your B12 level, especially if you are over age 50, are a vegan or seldom eat animal products. If your B12 is okay, aim for the Daily Value of 6 micrograms from meals. More, however, may be even better.

There’s no official upper limit for B12 intake, so overdoing it is not a big worry. However, taking high-dose supplements of 1,000 micrograms or getting B12 injections are necessary only if blood levels are truly suboptimal. And extra B12 is not a magic energy elixir.

Better B12 Sources. This vitamin is most abundant in protein foods of animal origin, though absorption varies. In one study, dairy products and fish, in particular, were better than meat and eggs at raising B12 blood levels.

Synthetic B12?found in supplements and fortified foods like cereals?doesn’t require stomach acid for absorption, so is particularly suited for older people. Some experts suggest the time is right for B12 fortification of foods, much like the addition of folic acid to enriched grains.

The Bottom Line. To guard against inadequate intake or impaired absorption of B12, EN recommends a daily multivitamin (choose the senior version if over age 50) and check out “Best Bets” below.












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