Study of the Day: Vitamin B12 May Help Prevent Brain Shrinkage

New research out of Chicago examines how vitamin B12, found in fish, meat, and poultry, affects brain mass and cognitive performance

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PROBLEM: Fish, meat, liver, milk, eggs, and poultry are our usual sources of vitamin B12. But how does this nutrient relate to brain size, dead cerebral tissue, and cognitive performance?

METHODOLOGY: Over 120 residents of Chicago over the age of 65 participated in the study. They had blood drawn to measure levels of vitamin B12 and B12-related markers that can indicate a B12 deficiency. They also took tests measuring their memory and other cognitive skills. More than four years later, MRI scans of the participants' brains were taken to measure total brain volume and to search for signs of damage.

RESULTS: Having high levels of four of five markers for vitamin B12 deficiency was associated with having lower scores on the cognitive tests and smaller total brain volume.

CONCLUSION: Poor vitamin B12 status is a potential risk factor for brain atrophy. Older people with low blood levels of vitamin B12 markers may be more likely to have lower brain volumes and problems with their thinking abilities.

CAVEAT: "It's too early to say whether increasing vitamin B12 levels in older people through diet or supplements could prevent these problems," says lead author and Rush University professor Christine Tangney in a news release, "but it is an interesting question to explore."

SOURCE: The full study, "Vitamin B12, Cognition, and Brain MRI Measures: A Cross-Sectional Examination," is published in the journal Neurology.

Image: Associated Press.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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