BACKGROUND. Healthy people can have low levels of cobalamin (vitamin B12) without symptoms or signs of cobalamin deficiency. Early detection of deficiency is imperative for treatment to be effective. Development of radioimmunoassay tests has greatly improved accurate determination of cobalamin (Cbl) levels. Nevertheless, results of studies of Cbl deficiency vary widely because of the variety of populations studied.
METHODS. In a prospective study, we tested 100 consecutive, unselected geriatric outpatients in a primary care setting to determine the prevalence of cobalamin deficiency. All patients, 65 years of age or older, who visited the office of one of the authors during a period of 11 consecutive working days, had their serum Cbl level checked. If the level was 299 pg/mL or lower, serum intrinsic factor and parietal cell antibodies, serum gastrin, part 1 Schilling test, serum methylmalonic acid, and total homocysteine were done, when possible, for the diagnosis of type A gastritis and intracellular Cbl deficiency.
RESULTS. Sixteen percent of geriatric outpatients had serum Cbl levels of 200 pg/mL or below, and 21% had levels between 201 and 299 pg/mL. Among the 16 patients with levels < or = 200 pg/mL, 2 patients had macrocytic anemia, 3 patients had peripheral neuropathy, and 8 patients had type A gastritis. Among the 21 patients with levels of 201 to 299 pg/mL, 2 patients had peripheral neuropathy, 9 patients had type A gastritis, and none of the patients had macrocytic anemia. Among the patients whose methylmalonic acid and total homocysteine levels were determined, the results were high in 80% of those with Cbl levels < or = 200 pg/mL and in 33% of those with levels from 201 to 299 pg/mL.
CONCLUSIONS. The prevalence of Cbl deficiency in geriatric outpatients was found to be higher than in any recent report. The lower limit of the normal range for Cbl level should be increased to 300 pg/mL.