Having higher vitamin B12 levels may protect against brain shrinkage in elderly people, according to a study published recently.
The researchers called their findings striking, but said more information is needed before recommending that people take vitamin B12 supplements to guard against the loss of brain volume and possibly prevent declines in thinking and memory.
In the study led by David Smith and Anna Vogiatzoglou of the University of Oxford in Britain, people in the upper third of vitamin B12 levels were one sixth as likely to experience brain shrinkage than those in the lowest third.
The study involved 107 healthy people, ages 61 to 87, who underwent scans to measure brain volume and gave blood samples to assess vitamin B12 levels once a year for up to five years.
All of those in the study had vitamin B12 levels classified in what is considered the normal range, the researchers said.
The study, published in the journal Neurology, did not look at whether taking vitamin B12 supplements would slow the rate of brain shrinkage. Another study in which they are involved focuses on that question, with the results expected in 2009.
What they can say is that the results suggest that rather than maintaining one’s B12 at a level that is just above the cutoff for deficiency, it might be prudent to aim to keep it higher up the normal range.
That could be achieved by eating plenty of foods that are a good source of vitamin B12 such as milk and other dairy products, fish, meat, and fortified breakfast cereals.
Vitamin B12 helps in the formation of red blood cells and is important for the maintenance of the central nervous system. Deficiency can lead to anemia and neurological damage.
Another study from Oxford that came out last year showed that lower vitamin B12 levels—but still within the normal range—were linked to cognitive impairment and a higher risk of later cognitive decline.
Vitamin B12 deficiency is uncommon in developed countries but is an issue among the elderly due to problems in vitamin absorption and among vegetarians whose dietary intake may be low, the researchers said. But it is a serious problem in less-developed parts of the world, Smith said, noting that in India around 70 percent of the people are vitamin B12 deficient.
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