What Dementia Caregivers Should Know About Vitamin B12 and Folate

Sherry Christiansen
By Sherry ChristiansenAugust 31, 2018

A recent study in Ireland discovered that a large percentage of seniors develop vitamin B12 and folate deficiencies as they age — vitamins that affect many aspects of health, including brain health.

Learn more about how vitamin B12 and folate can impact seniors and what dementia caregivers should know if a parent or senior loved one has a deficiency.

How Vitamin B12 and Folate Impact Senior Health

Vitamin B12 plays an important role in many aspects of health, including:

  • DNA synthesis
  • The formation of red blood cells
  • The health of nerve cells in the brain
  • The normal function of the brain and nervous system
  • The production of energy for the body

Vitamin B12 is primarily abundant in animal-based food sources. During normal digestion, vitamin B12 is released for proper absorption into the bloodstream. Vegans, vegetarians and those who do not consume many animal products (such as dairy and meat), may be at a higher risk for vitamin B12 deficiency.

Folate is another B vitamin, prevalent in beans, cereal, eggs, fruit and leafy green vegetables. It is also known as vitamin B9.

Folate is required for:

  • Producing DNA and RNA
  • Red blood cell production
  • Transforming carbohydrates into energy

Folate has been found in several clinical research studies to promote brain and heart health by controlling an essential amino acid, called homocysteine. High levels of homocysteine in the body have been linked with dementia, memory loss and stroke.

Because B vitamins play such an important role in healthy brain and nerve function and help to repair and synthesize DNA, the experts say that older adults who are at risk for these important nutrient deficiencies should be considered more seriously.

Study Shows Vitamin B12 and Folate Deficiencies Are Common in Seniors

Scientists at Trinity College Dublin, in Ireland, conducted the study, called the Irish Longitudinal Study on Aging (TILDA). In the study, 5,290 adults aged 50 and older submitted their medical records for research. Researchers then observed medical records for evidence of deficiencies in vitamin B12 and folate. The study, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, was the largest study on the status of B vitamins in seniors.

Once the data from the study was evaluated, the researchers discovered that 1 in 8 seniors was deficient or low in B-12 and 1 in 7 seniors had low folate levels or was considered folate deficient.

“There are striking differences in the prevalence of deficiency across different lifestyle factors such as obesity and smoking — both of which are modifiable risk factors,” said Dr. Eamon Laird, the lead study author.

The Symptoms of a Vitamin B12 Deficiency

A vitamin B12 and folate deficiency can develop slowly, over time, or it can rapidly progress.

Here are some common symptoms:

  • Anemia
  • Bleeding gums and easy bruising
  • Confusion
  • Constipation, diarrhea or nausea
  • Depression
  • Hallucinations or paranoia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Memory loss
  • Muscle weakness and severe fatigue
  • Numbness, pins and needle sensations and tingling in the extremities
  • Pale skin
  • Poor balance or staggering
  • Rapid pulse
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling of the tongue

Because so many seniors were discovered to have B12 and folate deficiencies, researchers convey that there needs to be a higher level of public health policy (such as mandatory fortification of cereals with vitamin B12 and folate) to protect the public.

They also recommend that people with dementia be screened to address the overlap that may occur between symptoms of a vitamin B deficiency and symptoms of dementia. It’s vital to consult with a health care provider if symptoms of a vitamin B deficiency (or any other symptoms) are noted in a person with dementia.

Dementia caregivers should also inquire about regular screening and supplementation of vitamin B12 and folate (for themselves and for the care recipient) as part of a brain-healthy diet and lifestyle regime.

Have you, a parent or senior loved one been screened for a vitamin B12 or folate deficiency? Why or why not? We’d like to hear your stories in the comments below.

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Sherry Christiansen

Sherry Christiansen

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