Why You Need a Daily Dose of B Vitamins

People 50 and up typically have greater requirements for certain B vitamins, particularly vitamins B6 and B12. B vitamins are vital for the breakdown and utilization of carbohydrates, fats and proteins. They also help to ensure proper functioning of the nervous system and the synthesis of red blood cells and genetic material.

But many people have poor-quality diets and thus don’t get enough. Furthermore, approximately 10 to 30 percent of older adults are unable to efficiently absorb vitamin B12 from food because of alterations in the cells that line the digestive tract or because of reduced secretion of a substance called intrinsic factor that is needed to absorb it. A lack of vitamin B12 can cause a form of dementia that can be mistaken for Alzheimer’s disease; a deficiency can also cause depression, numbness and weakness in the legs and anemia. Insufficient intake also may impair your immune system.

Recommendations for B Vitamin Intake

The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that people age 50 and older consume foods fortified with vitamin B12, such as cereals, or take supplements. Most multivitamin-mineral supplements contain 100 percent of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for folic acid and vitamins B6 and B12. To stay healthy:

• Get plenty of folic acid every day. The RDA for this vitamin is 400 micrograms (mcg). Good sources include enriched breads and cereals, dried peas and beans, oranges, orange juice, green vegetables and whole grains. If you take a folic acid supplement, you should also take 1 mcg of vitamin B12 daily.

• Eat foods rich in vitamin B6. The RDA for vitamin B6 is 1.5 mg for women over age 50 and 1.7 mg for men over age 50 (the RDA is 1.3 mg for adults ages 19 to 50). Good sources of vitamin B6 include fish, meats, poultry and bananas.

• Maintain an adequate vitamin B12 intake. The RDA for adults is 2.4 mcg per day. You can meet the RDA by consuming foods containing vitamin B12 (meat, poultry, shellfish, fish, eggs and dairy products), eating foods with added B12 (such as fortified cereals), or taking a supplement containing B12. People over age 50 should consume vitamin B12 in its crystalline form (the type used in supplements and in foods fortified with B12) because many adults 50 and up have a reduced ability to absorb vitamin B12 in other forms.

• Consult your doctor about whether to take B vitamins in individual supplements or as part of a multivitamin-mineral supplement. Most multivitamin-mineral supplements contain the amounts of folic acid, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 recommended here.