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Does Vitamin B12 Protect Your Brain?

A common vitamin found in meat, fish, dairy and other foods has been given a boost as a possible way to stave off the effects of aging. Vitamin B12 appears to protect people's brains as they age, according to a new British study.

Anna Vogiatzoglou of the University of Oxford and her colleagues did brain scans on 107 men and women ages 61 to 87 and measured the amount of vitamin B 12 in their blood. When the researchers did brain scans on the same subjects five years later, those who had higher vitamin B12 levels were six times less likely to have experienced brain shrinkage compared with those who had lower levels of the vitamin, the researchers reported in Tuesday's issue of the journal Neurology. None of the people in the study had vitamin B12 deficiencies, suggesting current recommendations for vitamin B12 intake may be too low.

Although the researchers also tested the study subjects' cognitive abilities, the study wasn't big enough to show that higher vitamin B12 levels actually improved memory and other thinking skills. But Vogiatzoglou says an earlier study involving more than 1,000 elderly subjects found that people who had "low" vitamin B12 levels that were still considered "normal" were more likely to have thinking problems as they aged.

It's unclear how vitamin B12 may protect the brain, but there is mounting evidence that the nutrient plays a key role helping keep brain cells healthy.

Previous studies looking at vitamin B12 and the brain have produced mixed results. So more research is needed to prove a cause-and-effect relationship. The researchers are in the midst of just such a study in which they are giving elderly people B vitamins and scanning their brains after two years. They should have some results next year.

In the meantime, the Vogiatzoglou told me in an email that no one should start taking vitamin B12 supplements based on her findings. Taking vitamins to promote health has a spotty history, with studies suggesting vitamin E, beta carotene and other nutrients may have benefits only to turn out to be useless, and sometimes even dangerous.

But the findings do suggest that it may not be such a bad idea to consume more vitamin B12 by eating meat, fish, fortified cereals or milk to help protect your brain.

By Rob Stein  |  September 11, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Neurological disorders , Nutrition and Fitness  
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