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Researchers have discovered multiple factors that influence our ability to think and remember as we age. These include well-known culprits such as alcohol abuse, and also newly discovered causes of mental decline, including chronic inflammation, vascular diseases, and even stress.
A typical American diet does not provide enough essential vitamins. Worse yet, older people are at greater risk for vitamin deficiency because they tend to eat less, although their requirements for certain vitamins, such as B6, actually rise with age. Older people may also have problems with efficient absorption of nutrients from food. Even healthy older people often exhibit deficiencies in vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and folate.
Vitamin B12 deficiency is commonly associated with chronic
stomach inflammation, resulting in malabsorption syndrome - a disease or condition that results in poor absorption of nutrients from food.
B12 also plays a vital role in the functioning of the nervous system and helps your brain to synthesize chemicals that affect mood.
In a study published in the September 9, 2008, issue of the journal Neurology, researchers from Oxford University and the University of Oslo report an association between decreased levels of vitamin B12 and a decline in brain volume. Reduced brain volume, or brain atrophy, has been associated with Alzheimer’s disease, and is used as a marker of the disease’s progression.
Comparison of MRI images obtained at the beginning of the study with those scanned after five years found a greater amount of brain volume loss among participants with low plasma levels of vitamin B12. Subjects whose plasma B12 levels were among the lowest one-third of participants had a six times greater adjusted risk of increased brain volume loss than those whose vitamin B12 levels were in the top two-thirds.
Vitamin B12 fosters building and maintenance of myelin, the protective covering that surrounds neurons. Severe B12 deficiency results in a number of signs and symptoms of pathologies. Among these are the blood changes categorized as pernicious and megaloblastic anemias, decreased methylation and elevated homocysteine, and compromised neurological function.
Compared to patients with other types of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease patients have lower levels of B12 in their cerebrospinal fluid. The resulting reduced availability of methyl groups is believed to lead to decreased synthesis of myelin, membrane phospholipids, and the neurotransmitter acetylcholine—all of which would have disastrous consequences for cognitive function. After recognizing that elevated plasma homocysteine was associated with cognitive decline in older adults, researchers who set out to determine whether it was insufficient folate or insufficient B12 that was responsible, found that B12 does influence healthy memory and nervous system function.