Vitamin B12 is vital for the formation of red blood cells, as well as for the proper functioning and health of nerve tissue.
People with B12 deficiency may eventually develop pernicious anemia, a type of blood disorder. Patients with pernicious anemia cannot produce enough IF (intrinsic factor) in their stomach. IF is needed so that the body can absorb vitamin B12. People with this blood disorder need to have vitamin B12 injections which go straight into their bloodstream, bypassing the stomach.
Vitamin B12 also helps our bodies absorb folic acid, which facilitates the release of energy.
According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition2, approximately 6% of people aged 60+ years are vitamin B12 deficient in the United Kingdom and the United States. Deficiency is much more common in developing countries, "starting in early life and persisting across life span."
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Symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency
A symptom is felt by the patient and reported to the doctor or people around them, while a sign can be detected by others. An example of a symptom is headache, while a skin rash or swelling are examples of signs.
For our cells to multiply properly, an adequate level of vitamin B12 is required. If this production goes down, your vitamin B12 levels are deficient, resulting in anemia.
Vitamin deficiencies are slowly progressing; they may take several years to start affecting people. Initial signs and symptoms may be subtle, but in time, they become more noticeable.
For our cells to multiply properly, an adequate level of vitamin B12 is required. The human body produces millions of red blood cells every minute. This production goes down if your vitamin B12 levels are deficient, resulting in anemia as the red blood cell count drops.
The most common symptoms of anemia are:
- Fatigue (tiredness)
- Panting (shortness of breath)
- Palpitations (disagreeable sensations of irregular or heavy beating of the heart).
B12 deficiency anemia may also be caused by a lack of intrinsic factor - pernicious anemia. The patient's digestive system cannot absorb B12 properly.
Symptoms of pernicious anemia may include:
- Shortness of breath
Anemia may also have the following signs and symptoms:
- A sore mouth or tongue
- Weight loss
- Pale or yellowish skin
- Diarrhea (sporadic)
- Menstrual problems
- Higher susceptibility to infections.
If the deficiency continues untreated the patient may have the following neurological signs and symptoms:
- Tingling or numbness of the fingers
- Tingling or numbness of the toes
- General muscle weakness
- Difficulty walking properly (staggering)
- Tender calves.
How much vitamin B12 do you need?
According to the National Institutes of Health1, how much vitamin B12 you need per day depends on your age. Below are the average daily recommended amounts for different ages (in micrograms, mcg):
|Life Stage||Recommended Amount|
|Birth to 6 months||0.4 mcg|
|Infants 7 to 12 months||0.5 mcg|
|Children 1 to 3 years||0.9 mcg|
|Children 4 to 8 years||1.2 mcg|
|Children 9 to 13 years||1.8 mcg|
|Teens 14 to 18 years||2.4 mcg|
|Pregnant teenagers and women||2.6 mcg|
|Breastfeeding teenagers and women||2.8 mcg|
Risk of brain shrinkage
Elderly people with low-vitamin B12 are more likely to suffer from brain shrinkage and cognitive decline, scientists from Rush University Medical Center reported in Neurology (September 2012, issue).
Elderly people with low-vitamin B12 are more likely to suffer from brain shrinkage and cognitive decline.
The team performed a study on 121 seniors, all aged 65 years or more. They took blood samples to check levels of vitamin B12 and B12-related metabolites, which can also help detect a deficiency. Their memories and other cognitive skills were also assessed.
Fifty-two months later MRI scans were done of their brains to check their size, as well as to determine whether there were any signs of brain damage.
The team found that those with four of five vitamin B12 deficiency markers were much more likely to have lower cognitive test scores and smaller total brain volumes.
On the next page we look at the causes of vitamin B12 deficiency, how it is diagnosed, the treatment options and how to prevent being deficient in vitamin B12.