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Is Your Confusion Due to a Vitamin Deficiency?

Older people may be less efficient at absorbing vitamin B12. A vitamin deficiency could cause cognitive difficulties that go away with supplementation.

As we grow older, our mental lapses bother us more and more. Could losing the car keys be the first sign of Alzheimer’s disease? Is forgetting the PIN for the ATM an early warning flag for dementia? One reader with such worries found that a vitamin deficiency led to forgetfulness, confusion and concern.

What Vitamin Deficiency Affects Brain Function?

Q. I am 65 and recently thought I was getting dementia. It never occurred to me I could be suffering from a vitamin deficiency.

If it hadn’t been for a relative who is a hospital lab director, lord knows what would have happened. My short-term memory was bad (I couldn’t remember whether I had just brushed my teeth without feeling my toothbrush), and I had a moment of confusion that terrified me: I couldn’t understand the numbers on my digital clock one night.

My balance had deteriorated so that I was unsteady if I closed my eyes to keep the shampoo out of them in the shower. This made no sense to me, as I am a ballroom dancer.

My relative explained that people over 50 sometimes have difficulty absorbing vitamin B12 through the gut. Finally, she suggested a sublingual tablet that goes directly into the bloodstream. I got some at the drugstore and within only a few days my mental confusion and other symptoms started to go away.

It’s been several months and I feel like myself again. Vitamin B12 deficiency is greatly under-diagnosed, especially in older persons.

Older People May Lack Vitamin B12:

A. You’re right that vitamin B12 (cobalamin) deficiency is more common among older people. In addition, it can cause neurological difficulties (Kumar, Handbook of Clinical Neurology, 2014). Sadly, doctors may not always suspect a vitamin deficiency as the cause of cognitive problems. As a result, people concerned about dementia should always be tested to see if they might have low levels of this critical vitamin.

Doctors used to treat patients for vitamin B12 deficiency with monthly injections. More recently, studies have shown that high-dose vitamin B12 pills or sublingual tablets are also effective (Ankar & Bhimji, StatPearls, June 20, 2017).

Others Who May Suffer from a Vitamin Deficiency:

In addition to the elderly, people who have had bariatric surgery to lose weight are susceptible to vitamin deficiency, including cobalamin deficiency (Via & Mechanick, Current Obesity Reports, online July 17, 2017). Those taking the diabetes drug metformin or PPI acid-suppressing medications may also become depleted. Consequently, if you take one of these drugs, you should ask your doctor for periodic monitoring (Kancherla et al, Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, May 2017).

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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