To Your Health

What new discoveries are there in regards to vitamin B-12?

Q. I recently read that vitamin B-12 is involved in bone health. What other new discoveries are there about vitamin B-12?

A. The magazine article refers to research from the University of California indicating that women older than 65 with low serum vitamin B-12 levels had a lower bone mineral density than did the women with higher BMD. BMD is the most common clinical assessment of osteoporosis risk.

The incidence of osteoporosis, which leads to unexpected bone fractures, will probably increase in coming years as the population ages. Prevention of health problems such as osteoporosis is much less expensive than treatment of the resulting bone fractures, which may also mean a radical change in lifestyle for an elderly person. Because dietary risk factors can be changed, it is particularly important to find every potentially helpful nutrient that might be employed to prevent osteoporosis and the other afflictions of old age.

Vitamin B-12 deficiency is more common among elderly people because they have diminished stomach acid. The cells in the stomach, called parietal cells, that secrete stomach acid also secrete the protein (intrinsic factor) that is necessary for absorption of vitamin B-12 from food. In addition, diminished stomach acid means absorption of all minerals from food is hindered, and it takes more than just calcium supplements to assure continued bone health as one ages. It is increasingly clear that a number of nutrients and food factors interact to promote bone health.

Vitamin B-12 is famous for producing red blood cells and maintaining a healthy nervous system. There are a number of other benefits to maintaining adequate vitamin B-12 status as we age. Along with vitamin A supplements, vitamin B-12 is very good for maintaining normal vision and preventing cataracts, another hazard of aging.

Studies of post-menopausal women suggest that low vitamin B-12 levels in the blood may be associated with an increased risk for breast cancer. In men, studies suggest that vitamin B-12 supplements may improve sperm counts and sperm mobility.

Recent studies have shown that poor vitamin B-12 and folate status may be associated with age-related hearing loss.

Obvious symptoms of vitamin B-12 deficiency may take more than five years to appear, even after body reserves have been depleted, so it is best to assure adequate vitamin B-12 intake when you are younger and not wait until symptoms appear. The best food sources of vitamin B-12 are liver and other animal protein sources, such as eggs and dairy products. A strict vegetarian diet (vegan) increases the risk of vitamin B-12 deficiency. If you choose to use a supplement, vitamin B-12 in the form of methylcobalamin or hydroxocobalamin seems to work better than the first available form of vitamin B-12, cyanocobalamin, possibly because the cyanide portion is toxic, even though present in extremely small amounts.

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