By Wina Sturgeon

It was more than 25 years ago, but the memory is still vivid. I was interviewing a doctor in the emergency psychiatric ward at UCLA when a handcuffed man was brought in, gripped by security and male nurses. He was dressed well, with expensive shiny shoes, looking like he could be an executive.

But the man was screaming, twisting in the tight grip of the cops and attendants. He called for a particular doctor in a psychotic rage. It was only later that I found out the screaming man wasn’t demented; just deficient in vitamin B12. Within a short time of receiving a shot of this important B factor, he returned to normal, greatly embarrassed by his behavior.

That’s when I learned two very important facts: the B12 factor is important, and many people over 50 have a deficiency of this essential nutrient. There are a number of reasons for it. The most serious is pernicious anemia, caused by the lack of a protein that’s required for the body to absorb B12. The most common reason is ‘atrophic gastritis,’ a condition where the lining of the stomach gets thinner as we age. It’s estimated that atrophic gastritis affects as many as one third of people over 50. Heavy use of anti-acid drugs can also affect the absorption of B12, as can gastric bypass surgery.

Symptoms of a mild deficiency may include irritability, problems with concentration, dizziness and fatigue, diarrhea, weight loss and easy bruising, though many mild cases have no symptoms at all. But as the deficiency gets more severe, it causes more serious symptoms. They include depression, confusion and memory loss, as well as problems with balance and tingling or numbness in fingers and toes. If the deficiency isn’t diagnosed and cured by B12 supplements, it can progress to actual dementia.

Because the symptoms can be so severe, some physicians miss the diagnosis of a simple vitamin deficiency that’s easily cured by a shot or a pill of the nutrient, taken with the total B factor. But it’s essential to get a quick and accurate diagnosis, because some recent studies are showing that a B12 deficiency may be connected with the onset and cause of Alzheimer’s disease. Numerous other studies show that an absence of this nutrient is also involved with the onset of clinical depression, a common problem in boomers and seniors.

Those over 50 who are vegetarians are at particular risk, because B12 is found mostly in animal-based foods such as meat, milk, eggs, poultry and fish. Those who eat none of these foods should supplement their diets with the full B factor in pill form.

If there’s any suspicion that you or someone you know may be suffering from a lack of B12, an easy and inexpensive blood test can determine the amount of this nutrient in the body. It’s important to know that even a┬ávery small deficiency can cause problems, some of which are even more serious than mental disturbances. B12 helps keep the amount of the amino acid homocysteine in balance, a function that may help lower the risk of heart disease.

Since a B12 deficiency is so much more common than most people realize, it’s a good idea to take a proactive stance by consuming a daily supplement of the full B complex, which will include B12. The B complex is totally interactive; all factors need to be included for any part of the vitamin to be absorbed.

But for those over 50, a blood screening in addition to supplementation is an ideal way to determine if you have enough vitamin B12 to keep your brain in good shape.

Originally published by Adventure Sports Weekly