Researchers from the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) at Trinity are calling for a change in Irish food production policy after their research showed that one in eight adults over 50 are low to deficient in vitamin B12, while one in seven are low to deficient in folate.
Their findings were published in the British Journal of Nutrition and are the largest and most comprehensive study of vitamin B12 and folate status ever conducted in Ireland.
Results from the study showed that 14% of 50-60 year olds were deficient in folate, while this figure is at 23% in over 80 year olds.
The researchers also found that the prevalence of folate deficiency increases with age, and are more common in smokers, the obese, and those who live alone, while vitamin B12 deficiency is more common in smokers (14%), those who live alone (14.3%), and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds (13%).
The study revealed that less than 4% of adults take supplements of either folate or vitamin B12.
Enrichment of micronutrients such as vitamin B12 and folic acid food products is voluntary in Ireland. This is in contrast to countries such as the US where fortification of such vitamins is mandatory, and where low folate status are currently around 1.2% in older adults.
The non-compulsory policy results in an inconsistent concentration of micronutrients between food products, which eventually leads to haphazard exposure.
Speaking on the significance of the findings, lead author of the study and Research Fellow at TILDA, Dr Eamon Laird, commented: “Our findings will provide useful data to help inform public health policy – particularly regarding the proposition of mandatory folic acid and/or vitamin B12 fortification.”
Senior author Professor Anne Molloy calls for a change in the policy, saying: “In countries such as the US, mandatory folic acid food fortification for the past 20 years has prevented millions of cases of folate deficiency without any proven adverse effects. Irish public health authorities need to act on the facts from studies such as ours.”
Both vitamin B12 and folate have crucial roles in nerve function, brain health and the production of red blood cells and DNA. Deficiency of either vitamin have been shown to be linked with poor health in the long-term, especially among older people.
Inadequate levels of vitamin B12 and folate have also been linked to the occurrence of neural tube defects in babies.