Vitamin B12 deficiency in the elderly: is it worth screening?

Hong Kong Med J. 2015 Apr;21(2):155-64. doi: 10.12809/hkmj144383. Epub 2015 Mar 10.


Vitamin B12 deficiency is common among the elderly. Elderly people are particularly at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency because of the high prevalence of atrophic gastritis-associated food-cobalamin (vitamin B12) malabsorption, and the increasing prevalence of pernicious anaemia with advancing age. The deficiency most often goes unrecognised because the clinical manifestations are highly variable, often subtle and non-specific, but if left undiagnosed the consequences can be serious. Diagnosis of vitamin B12 deficiency, however, is not straightforward as laboratory tests have certain limitations. Setting a cut-off level to define serum vitamin B12 deficiency is difficult; though homocysteine and methylmalonic acid are more sensitive for vitamin B12 deficiency, it may give false result in some conditions and the reference intervals are not standardised. At present, there is no consensus or guideline for diagnosis of this deficiency. It is most often based on the clinical symptoms together with laboratory assessment (low serum vitamin B12 level and elevated serum homocysteine or methylmalonic acid level) and the response to treatment to make definitive diagnosis. Treatment and replacement with oral vitamin B12 can be as effective as parenteral administration even in patients with pernicious anaemia. The suggested oral vitamin B12 dose is 1 mg daily for a month, and then maintenance dose of 125 to 250 µg for patients with dietary insufficiency and 1 mg daily for those with pernicious anaemia. Vitamin B12 replacement is safe and without side-effects, but prompt treatment is required to reverse the damage before it becomes extensive or irreversible. At present, there is no recommendation for mass screening for vitamin B12 in the elderly. Nevertheless, the higher prevalence with age, increasing risk of vitamin B12 deficiency in the elderly, symptoms being difficult to recognise, and availability of safe treatment options make screening a favourable option. However, the unavailability of reliable diagnostic tool or gold standard test makes screening difficult to carry out.

Keywords: Aging; Vitamin B 12 deficiency.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Female
  • Geriatric Assessment / methods
  • Hong Kong
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mass Screening / standards
  • Mass Screening / trends*
  • Prevalence
  • Risk Assessment
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Vitamin B 12 / administration & dosage*
  • Vitamin B 12 Deficiency / diagnosis*
  • Vitamin B 12 Deficiency / epidemiology


  • Vitamin B 12