Vitamin B12 deficiency. Are you getting enough?

Senior couples eating dinner together

One of the most common vitamin deficiencies seen in older adults is a Vitamin B12 deficiency. In the United States and United Kingdom, studies have found that vitamin B12 deficiencies are found in around 20% of adults over the age of 60. In Australia, there have been similar findings, with 14% of aged care residents showing a B12 deficiency.

As people age, vitamin and mineral deficiencies become more common. Sometimes, this is due to  changes in diet or lifestyle but often it’s because of the body’s ability to absorb and retain certain nutrients. This can mean that many deficiencies can go unnoticed for quite some time – if nothing in your lifestyle changes, it can be difficult to pinpoint why you might suddenly be experiencing symptoms of deficiency.

*Any medical diagnoses or advice should always be sought from your GP or other healthcare expert. The information below is intended for general education only and should not be substituted for medical advice.

What is vitamin B12?

Vitamin B12 is naturally found in animal foods (red meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, fish and  shellfish) and is needed to form red blood cells and DNA. B12 is also a vital player in the function and development of brain and nerve cells. 

What causes a deficiency in B12?

Because B12 is found in animal products, vegetarians and vegans are at high risk of a B12 deficiency. It is generally recommended that anyone who does not consume animal foods take B vitamin supplements on a regular basis. 

The main cause of B12 deficiency in older adults, however, is due to low levels of stomach acid. As you age, your stomach produces less acid which can lead to a range of nutrient absorption issues. Stomach acid levels can also be affected by certain medications.

Learn more about eating well in your 60’s+!

What are the symptoms of a B12 deficiency?

People who have low levels of B12 can experience a range of symptoms. Some of the most common are:

  • Extreme tiredness or fatigue
  • Dizziness or feeling faint
  • Headaches
  • Heart palpitations
  • Pale skin
  • Tinnitus (ringing in or ears, or the sensation that you can hear things happening inside your body rather than outside)
  • Pins and needles
  • Blurred vision
  • Mood changes, depression
  • Difficulty with memory and cognitive functioning
  • Balance and mobility issues

How do I make sure I’m getting enough B12?

If you are low in B12, it’s important to first discover the cause. Make sure you know whether it is simply diet related, or caused by something that is not diet related.

If it is because you’re not getting enough Vitamin B12 in your diet, you may need to adjust your diet, have B12 injections, take daily B12 tablet supplements, or a combination of all three. Whether or not you will require injections is dependent on the severity of your B12 deficiency.

Foods rich in Vitamin B12

  • Red meat
  • Poultry
  • Eggs
  • Milk and other dairy products
  • Fish and shellfish
  • Some fortified soy products (check the label)
  • Vegemite and Marmite!
  • Some breakfast cereals have B12 added to them (All Bran is a good example!)

If your Vitamin B12 deficiency is caused by something other than your diet, you may need to have an injection every 2-3 months for the rest of your life. 

Do you think you have a B12 deficiency?

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms above, or you’re worried that you might have a B12 deficiency, make sure you make an appointment with your GP and get tested. Don’t just assume you have a B12 deficiency and start taking supplements on your own (though they will not cause harm, any excess B12 just comes out in your urine!).

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