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Depression in Elderly Women Linked to Vitamin B-12 Deficiency

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Alpert says the study raises the awareness of both physicians and the public that there may be an association between vitamin B-12 levels and depression. "If one is severely depressed, you can have your B-12 levels checked," he says. "However, it won't tell you if taking B-12 would help or change your depression. It tells you that you have a nutritional deficiency that should be corrected."

Noting the 17% incidence of B-12 deficiency in the sample, Penninx agrees. "In this [elderly, disabled] population, depression is common and vitamin B-12 deficiency is common. If there's really a causal link between the two, we should be screening for vitamin B-12 deficiency because it is easily treatable."

Alpert says that the study leaves open some important questions: Would taking vitamin B-12 have prevented the depression, or could it treat the depression? "It's a reasonable speculation," Alpert says.

Says Lon S. Schneider, MD, of the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles: "There's absolutely no evidence from the way this study was done that taking vitamin B-12 would prevent depression." What the study does tend to show, he says, is something many physicians already know: that depression in the elderly is often accompanied by other medical problems.

Schneider says that normal doses of vitamins contain enough vitamin B-12 to prevent deficiency, as does a normal diet. People who are deficient in B-12 despite eating well and taking a multivitamin need further evaluation. "Treating B-12 deficiency isn't automatically giving vitamin B-12, because some people may not be able to absorb it," he says.

Alpert says he often recommends that depressed patients take a multivitamin: "One of the core symptoms of depression is that people eat poorly. Often I'll advise people both to try to improve their eating habits in general and take a multivitamin in the hope that will help, along with other treatments. ... It can't hurt."

Vital Information:

  • New research shows that elderly women who have a vitamin B-12 deficiency are twice as likely to be severely depressed as those without this deficiency.
  • People who are depressed often have poor eating habits, so it is difficult to determine whether the vitamin deficiency is a cause or result of depression.
  • One expert says he often recommends that his depressed patients try to improve their eating habits and take a multivitamin.
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