Although consensus guidelines recommend checking serum B12 in patients with dementia, clinicians are often faced with various questions: (1) Which patients should be tested? (2) What test should be ordered? (3) How are inferences made from such testing? (4) In addition to serum B12, should other tests be ordered? (5) Is B12 deficiency compatible with dementia of the Alzheimer’s type? (6) What is to be expected from treatment? (7) How is B12 deficiency treated?
On January 31st, 2009, a Medline search was performed revealing 1,627 citations related to cobalamin deficiency, hyperhomocysteinemia, and dementia. After limiting the search terms, all abstracts and/or articles and other references were categorized into six major groups (general, biochemistry, manifestations, associations and risks, evaluation, and treatment) and then reviewed in answering the above questions.
The six major groups above are described in detail. Seventy-five key studies, series, and clinical trials were identified. Evidence-based suggestions for patient management were developed.
Evidence is convincing that hyperhomocysteinemia, with or without hypovitaminosis B12, is a risk factor for dementia. In the absence of hyperhomocysteinemia, evidence is less convincing that hypovitaminosis B12 is a risk factor for dementia. B12 deficiency manifestations are variable and include abnormal psychiatric, neurological, gastrointestinal, and hematological findings. Radiological images of individuals with hyperhomocysteinemia frequently demonstrate leukoaraiosis. Assessing serum B12 and treatment of B12 deficiency is crucial for those cases in which pernicious anemia is suspected and may be useful for mild cognitive impairment and mild to moderate dementia. The serum B12 level is the standard initial test: 200 picograms per milliliter or less is low, and 201 to 350 picograms per milliliter is borderline low. Other tests may be indicated, including plasma homocysteine, serum methylmalonic acid, antiparietal cell and anti-intrinsic factor antibodies, and serum gastrin level. In B12 deficiency dementia with versus without pernicious anemia, there appear to be different manifestations, need for further workup, and responses to treatment. Dementia of the Alzheimer’s type is a compatible diagnosis when B12 deficiency is found, unless it is caused by pernicious anemia. Patients with pernicious anemia generally respond favorably to supplemental B12 treatment, especially if pernicious anemia is diagnosed early in the course of the disease. Some patients without pernicious anemia, but with B12 deficiency and either mild cognitive impairment or mild to moderate dementia, might show some degree of cognitive improvement with supplemental B12 treatment. Evidence that supplemental B12 treatment is beneficial for patients without pernicious anemia, but with B12 deficiency and moderately-severe to severe dementia is scarce. Oral cyanocobalamin is generally favored over intramuscular cyanocobalamin.