Is it Dementia or is it a B12 Deficiency?

Is it Dementia or is it B12 Deficiency?

When you hear about vitamin B12, it’s usually in the context of someone being unusually fatigued. That’s one of the signs of a B12 deficiency. That fatigue is usually the result of anemia that goes hand-in-hand with a lack of B12 in the body. When B12 levels come up through proper diet or supplements, the anemia and the resulting fatigue tends to lessen.

But there are many other roles this vitamin plays that can affect seniors and elderly adults in negative ways if you don’t get enough of it.

B12 plays a significant role in many functions in the body, including helping cells metabolize for energy, assisting in red blood cell formation, and even helping produce DNA and nerve functions. Though most of these problems lead to physical symptoms, there can be cognitive problems as well. Too little B12 in the body can mimic the symptoms of dementia.  

What’s the Story About B12?

B12 is an essential vitamin. It’s also known as cobalamin.

You can get it in a variety of foods, including meat, poultry, fish, and dairy. While that makes it obvious that those who eat a vegan diet are more likely to suffer from a B12 deficiency, other things can lead to a deficiency as well, such as being unable to absorb the nutrient due to digestive issues.

A big red flag for B12 deficiency is any sort of stomach surgery, such as gastric bypass – those who have this surgery often have problems with absorbing enough B12.

Age is also a factor – studies have found that up to one in ten seniors have a B12 deficiency.1 As we get older, the body doesn’t readily absorb as many nutrients. That’s why seniors should have their vitamin levels checked with bloodwork on a regular basis, to ensure that you can catch the problem and start taking supplements before it begins to affect you in negative ways.

According to WebMD, symptoms of a B12 deficiency can include fatigue, weakness, and feeling faint. You might also have problems with walking.2 Those are just a handful of reasons why it’s important to wear an emergency button alarm if you have any sort of vitamin deficiency.

Being very tired and feeling faint can easily lead to falls, and those falls can lead to serious injury for anyone but especially for seniors. As we get older, we don’t just have to worry about getting enough nutrients – we have to worry about brittle bones as well. An emergency panic button alarm at your fingertips helps ensure that if anything ever happens, you can get help fast at any hour of the day or night.

How Does a Vitamin B12 Deficiency Relate to Dementia?

In addition to physical problems, the loss of B12 in the body can lead to emotional and mental issues as well. Scientists have studied B12 deficiency and found that in some cases, a misdiagnosis of dementia was given when the real problem was not having enough of this vitamin in the body.

According to the journal Cureus, lowered B12 levels in the body can lead to mental symptoms that look very much like the cognitive decline experienced by those who have dementia.3 The most significant of these include memory loss, agitation, and behavioral changes.

Because B12 deficiency comes on gradually, just as the symptoms of dementia do, it’s possible for doctors to diagnose dementia without doing a full panel of bloodwork on a regular basis – and so they might not catch the B12 problem until much later, which means the symptoms continue to get worse.

But if doctors do find that B12 is the reason for dementia-like symptoms, the results can be astounding. Of the 202 patients in the Cureus study, a whopping 84% of them showed significant improvement in their cognitive symptoms after taking B12 injections. Even among those who showed no improvement in their symptoms, most of them scored better on the dementia assessment tests than they did before they took the supplements.

Doctors have sometimes viewed B12 as a consequence of dementia; something that simply happened as a part of the changes in the brain and body. But careful studies have found that if treating B12 deficiency with B12 supplements improves the symptoms of dementia, then the problem is likely not dementia at all. Vitamin B12 deficiency can be reversed; dementia cannot.

Overlooking B12 Deficiency is a Serious Problem

The journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences reports that vitamin B12 deficiency is surprisingly prevalent in those who have dementia and might account for even more misdiagnosis than scientists once believed.4  Though it is impossible to say exactly how many people with B12 deficiency show mental and emotional symptoms, that number is believed to be between 4% and 50%. These problems include not only the behavioral changes and agitation mentioned earlier, but can also include confusion, slow thinking, and memory problems.

Interestingly, these mental changes might show up well before the B12 problem shows up in the bloodwork – in some cases, by several years. For some, the mental changes might be the only symptom. For instance, among patients who had gastric bypass surgery of some kind, 50% of them who had B12 deficiency showed some intellectual impairment, but only 14% of them showed the problems with bone marrow you might expect from B12 deficiency.

What does this mean for you?

If you are being evaluated for dementia, talk to your doctor about getting a full bloodwork panel, including a look at your B12 levels. It’s vitally important to rule out the question of B12 as part of the problem. The study in Cureus found that among dementia patients, at least 29% of them had low vitamin B12 levels. It’s important to bring those levels up to a healthy level; only then can a doctor truly evaluate whether the problem is dementia or whether it’s caused by low B12 in the body.

Should You Take B12 Supplements?

Taking extra amounts of B12 when your numbers are already in a healthy range doesn’t provide any benefit to you, so the first step is to get that blood test done. If you find that your B12 is lower than it should be, your doctor will probably recommend supplements. Though you can get B12 from food, it might not be enough to pull you out of a deficiency.

B12 supplements are available over the counter in a variety of strengths for a very affordable price. But sometimes you might need injections to give you more B12 than the usual supplements provide and ensure it gets into your system faster. This is especially true if your levels are very low or it is suspected that the low levels are causing dementia-like symptoms. Talk to your doctor about the level of B12 supplements that is right for you.

If you are getting treatment for B12 deficiency, make sure you also have an in-home or on-the-go medical alert pendant or wristband close at hand. The physical symptoms of low B12 can sneak up on you, so you should be prepared if they do. Problems with walking and serious fatigue can lead to falls. Falls are the top cause of traumatic brain injury among all ages and the primary cause of hip fractures among the elderly, so it pays to be able to reach out for help at a moment’s notice. A medical alert system with fall detection and GPS can ensure that you get the assistance you need right away if you do suffer from the symptoms of a B12 deficiency.

Now is the Time for Labwork

It’s important to remember that B12 supplements can’t cure dementia. Dementia is a progressive disease that has no cure. However, taking B12 supplements if you have a low level of the vitamin in your blood can improve the cognitive symptoms of a B12 deficiency. But remember, you can have dementia and a B12 (or other) deficiency at the same time.

B12 isn’t the only thing you should think about when it comes to staying healthy. Ask your doctor to look at laboratory results for a wide variety of problems. Though the usual tests for a physical assessment will look at things like blood sugar, cholesterol, liver enzymes, and the like, testing for vitamin deficiencies isn’t always automatic. These tests are usually run on a very specific basis, when there is a clear concern about something in particular. But for peace of mind, ask your doctor to run an extensive bloodwork panel every few years.

You can get even further peace of mind by choosing a personal emergency alert system for elderly adults. The use of a medical alert necklace or watch can ensure that no matter what is happening with your health, you have the opportunity to reach out for assistance at any time, day or night. Whether you are dealing with the symptoms of a vitamin deficiency, have just suffered a fall, or are dealing with any other medical emergency, you can be rest assured that quick help may be summoned by the press of a button.