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Vitamin B12 inhibits mental decline in the elderly

No, the epidemiologists in Oxford, UK, didn't get people to take vitamin B12 supplements. But from their study it's possible to conclude that extra vitamin B12 keeps the brain in good condition in the elderly. The Brits followed 1600 people over the age of 65 between 1993 and 2003.

During this period the researchers measured the concentration of vitamin B12, folate, holotranscobalamin, methylmalonic acid and homocysteine in the subjects' blood.

Holotranscobalamin is an active form of vitamin B12; the concentration of methylmalonic acid in the blood rises if there is a shortage of vitamin B12 in the body and a high concentration of homocysteine is an indication of... Well, researchers don't actually know what a high level of homocysteine means. All they know is that in many cases it's not healthy.

The researchers got their subjects to do mental tests on a number of occasions throughout the duration of the study. The figure below shows the results of these over time.

Vitamin B12 inhibits mental decline in the elderly

Each line represents the test results of one of the elderly subjects over the period of the study. Some of the subjects hardly showed any decline at all. Others showed rapid decline: their scores look like falling stars. Sic transit gloria mundi, fellas.

The researchers then looked at whether they could find any relationships between the progression of the scores and the blood counts they had measured. And they did find some, as the figure below shows.

Vitamin B12 inhibits mental decline in the elderly

Imagine now that the blood factor counts measured were to double. What would happen to the mental test scores? The answer to this question is shown above; the figure is based on multivariate analyses.

A doubling of the amount of folate and vitamin B12 in the blood has no statistically significant effect. A doubling of the amount of holotranscobalamin on the other hand reduces the speed of mental decline by thirty percent.

A doubling of the amount of homocysteine and methylmalonic acid speeded up the rate of mental decline by fifty percent. Of these two factors, only the effect of methylmalonic acid remained present after statistical processing.

After doing a literature survey the researchers conclude that you can achieve a doubling of the concentration of holotranscobalamin by taking oral supplements. Whether supplements containing extra B12 really help preserve mental functioning the researchers don't know. The results of these trials and others on the effect of B vitamins on cardiovascular disease would seem to indicate there is some truth in it.

Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Nov;86(5):1384-91.

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