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The Undervalued Vitamin

Vitamin B12 is present in abundance in most people's diets, so generally the risk of having a deficiency is low, but PhD research at Lincoln University has led to recommendations that some at-risk groups consider regular injections of the important vitamin. The injectable B12 is available from pharmacies without prescription and can be administered by nurses.

The only source of vitamin B12 in the diet is from animal products, the richest source being liver. This vitamin is unique in that it needs to be linked to other proteins in the body to be absorbed and utilised. Therefore a deficiency can develop not only from a lack of vitamin B12 itself, but also from a lack of these proteins, says Tini Gruner, a PhD candidate in Lincoln's Animal and Food Sciences Division.

Vitamin B12 is required by the body as a coenzyme in energy metabolism and immunity reactions which do not proceed without the vitamin. Since the vitamin is stored in the liver a deficiency in the diet may take several years to develop.

Signs and symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency include a shortened stride when walking, lowered resistance to disease, lack of energy, anaemia and, ultimately, irreversible neurological damage (such as in dementia).

Gruner says that people who would benefit most from such injections include vegans, people who are taking antacids for indigestion, or who have had parts of their stomach or small intestines removed, those with active liver disease or liver damage or those who consume alcohol regularly, and people with chronic pancreatic disease or cystic fibrosis.

The elderly could also benefit, especially if they already suffer from a neurological disorder such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's or Alzheimer's disease, or dementia; an estimated 25 to 50% of people over the age of 60 are thought to have some form of impaired vitamin B12 status.

"The injection is cheap and an easy-to-administer treatment that would help people to maintain life quality and well-being if it were more readily used," says Gruner.

"Tests are available to measure the amount of vitamin B12 in the bloodstream but they at best can only give an indication of the recent intake. They do not tell if the body stores are depleted."