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Elderly Hispanics May Lack Vitamin B12

By Rosalie Marion Bliss
April 17, 2003

Researchers funded by the Agricultural Research Service have reported that elderly Hispanics of Caribbean origin were significantly more likely to be vitamin B12 deficient than were non-Hispanic whites. The findings were based on a study of data collected in the volunteers' homes. Symptoms of B12 deficiency range from decreased memory and balance disturbances to nerve damage and cognitive decline.

The researchers are with the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University in Boston, Mass. The study was lead by Katherine Tucker, director of HNRCA's Dietary Assessment Research Program. The researchers examined data collected from 347 Puerto Ricans, 102 Dominicans and 154 non-Hispanic whites aged 60 to 93 years, living in Massachusetts.

One reason for the lower levels is that the B12 in natural sources such as meat, eggs and dairy products is tightly bound to the proteins contained in those foods. That means that unless the consumer has enough stomach acid to break those bonds, he or she may not absorb sufficient quantities of B12. Aging and taking acid-blockers contribute to a gradual lessening of B12 absorption.

Sources of vitamin B12 that are not bound to protein, such as supplements and fortified cereals, appear to be protective, according to Tucker. The study showed that those who took supplements with B12 or ate cereal more than four times per week were significantly less likely to have low levels of B12.

Read more about the nutritional epidemiology of Hispanics in the April issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.