How do B-vitamins affect my brain as I age?

Vitamins B6 and B12 are both involved in systems that keep the amino acid’s derivative homocysteine in check. Elevated homocysteine levels are associated with higher risk of many health issues, including cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s. Poor vitamin B status into one’s advanced years may lead to brain shrinkage and earlier or greater onset of cognitive impairment. Recent research using very high doses of vitamin B6 and B12 showed a reduction in homocysteine levels of almost 23 percent for those supplementing and an increase of 8 percent in the placebo group. Further, the rate of brain shrinkage in the vitamin group was 30 percent less than in those taking the placebo.
As you age, a shortage of B vitamins may affect the normal functioning of your nervous system, including your brain and spinal column. Here are how various B vitamins contribute to a healthy nervous system.

Choline, which is found in peanuts, eggs, cauliflower and meat, is essential for learning and memory. (Before birth, choline is critical for brain growth in a developing fetus.)

Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), which is found in meat, oily fish, poultry, whole grains, avocados, soybeans and watermelon, helps form normal blood cells, including red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout your body and to your brain. Symptoms of vitamin B6 deficiency may include impaired memory and trouble concentrating.

Folate is involved in the production of neurotransmitters -- chemical messengers in the brain. Folate deficiency may cause memory problems and trouble concentrating. If you have high levels of folate, it may help lower the amount of the amino acid homocysteine in your blood. That might be a good thing, because high levels of homocysteine are associated with increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Consuming a diet rich in folate may lower your risk for these conditions. Folate is found naturally in dried peas and beans, orange juice, bananas, and green, leafy vegetables (the synthetic form of folate, folic acid, is used in supplements and fortified foods).

Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) may play an important role in maintaining your memory. Dementia and confusion can be symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency. Vitamin B12 supplements may improve mental functioning in people who are experiencing symptoms of a shortage; however, there is no scientific evidence that supplements will provide similar benefits for people who are not deficient. Only animal-derived foods (such as meat, eggs, and dairy products) contain vitamin B12. After age 50, your body may not absorb vitamin B12 as well from these foods as it did when you were younger, so you may need a supplement to avoid a deficiency.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.