Vitamin B12 Deficiency: Recognition and Management

 

Am Fam Physician. 2017 Sep 15;96(6):384-389.

  Patient information: A handout on this topic is available at https://familydoctor.org/vitamin-b-12.

Author disclosure: No relevant financial affiliations.

Vitamin B12 deficiency is a common cause of megaloblastic anemia, various neuropsychiatric symptoms, and other clinical manifestations. Screening average-risk adults for vitamin B12 deficiency is not recommended. Screening may be warranted in patients with one or more risk factors, such as gastric or small intestine resections, inflammatory bowel disease, use of metformin for more than four months, use of proton pump inhibitors or histamine H2 blockers for more than 12 months, vegans or strict vegetarians, and adults older than 75 years. Initial laboratory assessment should include a complete blood count and serum vitamin B12 level. Measurement of serum methylmalonic acid should be used to confirm deficiency in asymptomatic high-risk patients with low-normal levels of vitamin B12. Oral administration of high-dose vitamin B12 (1 to 2 mg daily) is as effective as intramuscular administration for correcting anemia and neurologic symptoms. Intramuscular therapy leads to more rapid improvement and should be considered in patients with severe deficiency or severe neurologic symptoms. Absorption rates improve with supplementation; therefore, patients older than 50 years and vegans or strict vegetarians should consume foods fortified with vitamin B12 or take vitamin B12 supplements. Patients who have had bariatric surgery should receive 1 mg of oral vitamin B12 per day indefinitely. Use of vitamin B12 in patients with elevated serum homocysteine levels and cardiovascular disease does not reduce the risk of myocardial infarction or stroke, or alter cognitive decline.

Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) is a water-soluble vitamin obtained through the ingestion of fish, meat, and dairy products, as well as fortified cereals and supplements.1,2 It is coabsorbed with intrinsic factor, a product of the stomach's parietal cells, in the terminal ileum after being extracted by gastric acid1,2 (Figure 13). Vitamin B12 is crucial for neurologic function, red blood cell production, and DNA synthesis, and is a cofactor for three major reactions: the conversion of methylmalonic acid to succinyl coenzyme A; the conversion of homocysteine to methionine; and the conversion of 5-methyltetrahydrofolate to tetrahydrofolate.1,2

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SORT: KEY RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PRACTICE

Clinical recommendationEvidence ratingReferences

Patients with risk factors for vitamin B12 deficiency should be screened with a complete blood count and serum vitamin B12 level.

C

18

A serum methylmalonic acid level may be used to confirm vitamin B12 deficiency when it is suspected but the serum vitamin B12 level is normal or low-normal.

C

18

Oral and injectable vitamin B12 are effective means of replacement, but injectable therapy leads to more rapid improvement and should be considered in patients with severe deficiency or severe neurologic symptoms.

B

18

Patients who have had bariatric surgery should receive 1 mg of oral vitamin B12 per day indefinitely.

C

31


A = consistent, good-quality patient-oriented evidence; B = inconsistent or limited-quality patient-oriented evidence; C = consensus, disease-oriented evidence, usual practice, expert opinion, or case series. For information about the SORT evidence rating system, go to https://www.aafp.org/afpsort.

SORT: KEY RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PRACTICE

Clinical recommendationEvidence ratingReferences

Patients with risk factors for vitamin B12 deficiency should be screened with a complete blood count and serum vitamin B12 level.

C

18

A serum methylmalonic acid level may be used to confirm vitamin B12 deficiency when it is suspected but the serum vitamin B12 level is normal or low-normal.

C

18

Oral and injectable vitamin B12 are effective means of replacement, but injectable therapy leads to more rapid improvement and should be considered in patients with severe deficiency or severe neurologic symptoms.

B

18

Patients who have had bariatric surgery should receive 1 mg of oral vitamin B12 per day indefinitely.

C

31


A = consistent, good-quality patient-oriented evidence; B = inconsistent or limited-quality patient-oriented evidence; C = consensus, disease-oriented evidence, usual practice, expert opinion, or case series. For information about the SORT evidence rating system, go to https://www.aafp.org/afpsort.

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Figure 1

Vitamin B12 absorption and transport.

Reprinted with permission from Oh R, Brown DL. Vitamin B12 deficiency. Am Fam Physician. 2003;67(5):981.


Figure 1

Vitamin B12 absorption and transport.

Reprinted with permission from Oh R, Brown DL. Vitamin B12 deficiency. Am Fam Physician. 2003;67(5):981.

In the United States and the United Kingdom, the prevalence of vitamin B12 deficiency is approximately 6% in persons younger than 60 years, and nearly 20% in those older than 60 years.1 Latin American countries have a clinical or subclinical deficiency rate of approximately 40%.1 The prevalence is 70% in Kenyan school children, 80% in East Indian preschool-aged children, and 70% in East Indian adults.1 Certain risk factors increase the prevalence of vitamin B12 deficiency (Table 1).4,5 Dietary insufficiency, pernicious anemia (i.e., an autoimmune process that reduces available intrinsic factor and subsequent absorption of vitamin B121,2,6,7), and long-term use of metformin or acid-suppressing medications have been implicated in B12 deficiency.8,9

A multicenter randomized controlled trial of 390 patients with diabetes mellitus showed that those taking 850 mg of metformin three times per day had an increased risk of vitamin B12 deficiency (number needed to harm = 14 per 4.3 years) and low vitamin B12 levels (number needed to harm = 9 per 4.3 years) vs. placebo.8 This effect increased with duration of therapy, and patients had an unclear prophylactic supplementation response. 8 A case-control study that compared 25,956 patients who had vitamin B12 deficiency with 184,199 control patients found a significantly increased risk of vitamin B12 deficiency in patients who had taken proton pump inhibitors (odds ratio = 1.65) or histamine H2 blockers (odds ratio = 1.25) for at least two years.9 In light of these findings, long-term use of these medications should be periodically reassessed, particularly in patients with other risk factors for vitamin B12 deficiency.8,9

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Table 1

Risk Factors for Vitamin B12 Deficiency

Decreased ileal absorption

Crohn disease

Ileal resection

Tapeworm infection

Decreased intrinsic factor

Atrophic gastritis

Pernicious anemia

Postgastrectomy syndrome (includes Roux-en-Y gastric bypass)

Genetic

Transcobalamin II deficiency

Inadequate intake

Alcohol abuse

Patients older than 75 years

Vegans or strict vegetarians (including exclusively breastfed infants of vegetarian/vegan mothers)

Prolonged medication use

Histamine H2 blocker use for more than 12 months

Metformin use for more than four months

Proton pump inhibitor use for more than 12 months


Adapted with permission from Langan RC, Zawistoski KJ. Update on vitamin B12 deficiency. Am Fam Physician. 2011;83(12):1426, with additional information from reference 5.

Table 1

Risk Factors for Vitamin B12 Deficiency

Decreased ileal absorption

Crohn disease

Ileal resection

Tapeworm infection

Decreased intrinsic factor

Atrophic gastritis

Pernicious anemia

Postgastrectomy syndrome (includes Roux-en-Y gastric bypass)

Genetic

Transcobalamin II deficiency

Inadequate intake

Alcohol abuse

Patients older than 75 years

Vegans or strict vegetarians (including exclusively breastfed infants of vegetarian/vegan mothers)

Prolonged medication use

Histamine H2 blocker use for more than 12 months

Metformin use for more than four months

Proton pump inhibitor use for more than 12 months


Adapted with permission from Langan RC, Zawistoski KJ. Update on vitamin B12 deficiency. Am Fam Physician. 2011;83(12):1426, with additional information from reference 5.

Manifestations

Vitamin B12 deficiency affects multiple systems, and sequelae vary in severity from mild fatigue to severe neurologic impairment 1,2,6,10  (Table 24,10). The substantial hepatic storage of vitamin B12 can delay clinical manifestations for up to 10 years after the onset of deficiency.11 Bone marrow suppression is common and potentially affects all cell lines, with megaloblastic anemia being most common.1,2,6 The resultant abnormal erythropoiesis can trigger other notable abnormal laboratory findings, such as decreased haptoglobin levels, high lactate dehydrogenase levels, and elevated reticulocyte count.1,2,6 Symptoms typically include being easily fatigued with exertion, palpitations, and skin pallor.1,2,6 Skin hyperpigmentation, glossitis, and infertility have also been reported.1,2,6 Neurologic manifestations are caused by progressive demyelination and can include peripheral neuropathy, areflexia, and the loss of proprioception and vibratory sense. Areflexia can be permanent if neuronal death occurs in the posterior and lateral spinal cord tracts.1,2,6,12 Dementia-like disease, including episodes of psychosis, is possible with more severe and chronic deficiency.1,12 Clinical evaluation seems to show an inverse relationship between the severity of megaloblastic anemia and the degree of neurologic impairment.2

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Table 2

Clinical Manifestations of Vitamin B12 Deficiency

Cutaneous

Hyperpigmentation

Jaundice

Vitiligo

Gastrointestinal

Glossitis

Hematologic

Anemia (macrocytic, megaloblastic)

Leukopenia

Pancytopenia

Thrombocytopenia

Thrombocytosis

Neuropsychiatric

Areflexia

Cognitive impairment (including dementia-like symptoms and acute psychosis)

Gait abnormalities

Irritability

Loss of proprioception and vibratory sense

Olfactory impairment

Peripheral neuropathy


Adapted with permission from Langan RC, Zawistoski KJ. Update on vitamin B12 deficiency. Am Fam Physician. 2011;83(12):1427, with additional information from reference 10.

Table 2

Clinical Manifestations of Vitamin B12 Deficiency

Cutaneous

Hyperpigmentation

Jaundice

Vitiligo

Gastrointestinal

Glossitis

Hematologic

Anemia (macrocytic, megaloblastic)

Leukopenia

Pancytopenia

Thrombocytopenia

Thrombocytosis

Neuropsychiatric

Areflexia

Cognitive impairment (including dementia-like symptoms and acute psychosis)

Gait abnormalities

Irritability

Loss of proprioception and vibratory sense

Olfactory impairment

Peripheral neuropathy


Adapted with permission from Langan RC, Zawistoski KJ. Update on vitamin B12 deficiency. Am Fam Physician. 2011;83(12):1427, with additional information from reference 10.

Maternal vitamin B12 deficiency during pregnancy or while breastfeeding may lead to neural tube defects, developmental delay, failure to thrive, hypotonia, ataxia, and anemia.4,1316 Women at high risk or with known deficiency should supplement with vitamin B12 during pregnancy or while breastfeeding.4,1416

Screening and Diagnosis

Screening persons at average risk of vitamin B12 deficiency is not recommended.17 Screening should be considered in patients with risk factors, and diagnostic testing should be considered in those with suspected clinical manifestations.1,2,6,18

The recommended laborator y evaluation for patients with suspected vitamin B12 deficiency includes a complete blood count and serum vitamin B12 level.2,1921 A level of less than 150 pg per mL (111 pmol per L) is diagnostic for deficiency.1,2 Serum vitamin B12 levels may be artificially elevated in patients with alcoholism, liver disease, or cancer because of decreased hepatic clearance of transport proteins and resultant higher circulating levels of vitamin B12; physicians should use caution when interpreting laboratory results in these patients.22,23 In patients with a normal or low-normal serum vitamin B12 level, complete blood count results demonstrating macrocy tosis, or suspected clinical manifestations, a serum methylmalonic acid level is an appropriate next step 1,2,6,18 and is a more direct measure of vitamin B12's physiologic activity.1,2 Although not clinically validated or available for widespread use, measurement of holotranscobalamin, the metabolically active form of vitamin B12, is an emerging method of detecting deficiency.1,2,18  Table 3 lists the relative sensitivities and specificities of various laboratory tests.24

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Table 3

Estimated Sensitivity and Specificity of Serum Laboratory Tests for Vitamin B12 Deficiency

CriteriaSensitivity (%)Specificity

Decreased serum vitamin B12 level (< 200 pg per mL [148 pmol per L])

95 to 97

Uncertain

Elevated serum methylmalonic acid level

> 95

Uncertain


Information from reference 24.

Table 3

Estimated Sensitivity and Specificity of Serum Laboratory Tests for Vitamin B12 Deficiency

CriteriaSensitivity (%)Specificity

Decreased serum vitamin B12 level (< 200 pg per mL [148 pmol per L])

95 to 97

Uncertain

Elevated serum methylmalonic acid level

> 95

Uncertain


Information from reference 24.

Pernicious anemia refers to one of the hematologic manifestations of chronic auto-immune gastritis, in which the immune system targets the parietal cells of the stomach or intrinsic factor itself, leading to decreased absorption of vitamin B12.1 Asymptomatic autoimmune gastritis likely precedes gastric atrophy by 10 to 20 years, followed by the onset of iron-deficiency anemia that occurs as early as 20 years before vitamin B12 deficiency pernicious anemia.25

Patients diagnosed with vitamin B12 deficiency whose history and physical examination do not suggest an obvious dietary or malabsorptive etiology should be tested for pernicious anemia with anti-intrinsic factor antibodies (positive predictive value = 95%), particularly if other autoimmune disorders are present.1,2,6,18 Patients with pernicious anemia may have hematologic findings consistent w ith normocytic anemia.1 If anti-intrinsic factor results are negative but suspicion for pernicious anemia remains, an elevated serum gastrin level is consistent with the diagnosis.2 The Schilling test, which was once the diagnostic standard for pernicious anemia, is no longer available in the United States. Figure 2 presents an approach to diagnosing vitamin B12 deficiency and pernicious anemia.18,26

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Evaluation of Suspected Vitamin B12 Deficiency

Figure 2

Suggested approach to the patient with suspected vitamin B12 deficiency.

Information from references 18 and 26.

Evaluation of Suspected Vitamin B12 Deficiency


Figure 2

Suggested approach to the patient with suspected vitamin B12 deficiency.

Information from references 18 and 26.

Treatment

Vitamin B12 deficiency can be treated with intramuscular injections of cyanocobalamin or oral vitamin B12 therapy. Approximately 10% of the standard injectable dose of 1 mg is absorbed, which allows for rapid replacement in patients with severe deficiency or severe neurologic sy mptoms.2 Guidelines from the British Society for Haematology recommend injections three times per week for two weeks in patients without neurologic deficits.18  If neurologic deficits are present, injections should be given every other day for up to three weeks or until no further improvement is noted. Table 4 lists the usual times until improvement for abnormalities associated with vitamin B12 deficiency.27 In general, patients with an irreversible cause should be treated indefinitely, whereas those with a reversible cause should be treated until the deficiency is corrected and symptoms resolve.1 If vitamin B12 deficiency coexists with folate deficiency, vitamin B12 should be replaced first to prevent subacute combined degeneration of the spinal cord.1 The British Society for Haematology does not recommend retesting vitamin B12 levels after treatment has been initiated, and no guidelines address the optimal interval for screening high-risk patients.18

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Table 4

Time to Improvement of Abnormalities in Vitamin B12 Deficiency After Initiation of Treatment

AbnormalityExpected time until improvement

Homocysteine or methylmalonic acid level, or reticulocyte count

One week

Neurologic symptoms

Six weeks to three months

Anemia, leukopenia, mean corpuscular volume, or thrombocytopenia

Eight weeks


Information from reference 27.

Table 4

Time to Improvement of Abnormalities in Vitamin B12 Deficiency After Initiation of Treatment

AbnormalityExpected time until improvement

Homocysteine or methylmalonic acid level, or reticulocyte count

One week

Neurologic symptoms

Six weeks to three months

Anemia, leukopenia, mean corpuscular volume, or thrombocytopenia

Eight weeks


Information from reference 27.

A 2005 Cochrane review involving 108 patients with vitamin B12 deficiency found that high-dose oral replacement (1 mg to 2 mg per day) was as effective as parenteral administration for correcting anemia and neurologic symptoms.28 However, oral therapy does not improve serum methylmalonic acid levels as well as intramuscular therapy, although the clinical relevance is unclear.29 There is also a lack of data on the long-term benefit of oral therapy when patients do not take daily doses.2 There is insufficient data to recommend other formulations of vitamin B12 replacement (e.g., nasal, sublingual, subcutaneous).2 The British Society for Haematology recommends intramuscular vitamin B12 for severe deficiency and malabsorption syndromes, whereas oral replacement may be considered for patients with asymptomatic, mild disease with no absorption or compliance concerns.18

Prevention

Because of potential interactions from prolonged medication use, physicians should consider screening patients for vitamin B12 deficiency if they have been taking proton pump inhibitors or H2 blockers for more than 12 months, or metformin for more than four months.5 The average intake of vitamin B12 in the United States is 3.4 mcg per day, and the recommended dietary allowance is 2.4 mcg per day for adult men and nonpregnant women, and 2.6 mcg per day for pregnant women.30 Patients older than 50 years may not be able to adequately absorb dietary vitamin B12 and should consume food fortified with vitamin B12.30 Vegans and strict vegetarians should be counseled to consume fortified cereals or supplements to prevent deficiency. The American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery recommends that patients who have had bariatric surgery take 1 mg of oral vitamin B12 per day indefinitely.31

Vitamin B12 and Hyperhomocysteinemia

Vitamin B12 deficiency is a much more common cause of hyperhomocysteinemia in developed countries than folate deficiency because of widespread fortification of food with folate. Although epidemiologic studies have shown an association between vascular disease and hyperhomocysteinemia, large randomized controlled trials have shown that lowering homocysteine levels in these patients does not reduce the number of myocardial infarctions or strokes, or improve mortality rates.32 Similarly, an association between elevated homocysteine levels and cognitive impairment has been noted, but subsequent vitamin B12 replacement does not have preventive or therapeutic benefit.33

This article updates previous articles on this topic by Langan and Zawistoski,4 and by Oh and Brown.3

Data Sources: A PubMed search was completed in Clinical Queries using the key terms vitamin B12, cobalamin, deficiency, and treatment. The search included meta-analyses, randomized controlled trials, clinical trials, and reviews. Also searched were the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality evidence reports, Clinical Evidence, the Cochrane database, Essential Evidence, the Institute for Clinical Systems Improvement, the National Guideline Clearinghouse database, and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Search dates: March 1, 2016; October 20, 2016; and June 9, 2017.

The Authors

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ROBERT C. LANGAN, MD, FAAFP, is the program director at St. Luke's Family Medicine Residency Program, Bethlehem, Pa., and an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Temple University School of Medicine, Philadelphia, Pa....

ANDREW J. GOODBRED, MD, is a faculty member at St. Luke's Family Medicine Residency Program and an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Temple University School of Medicine.

Address correspondence to Robert C. Langan, MD, St. Luke's Hospital, 2830 Easton Ave., Bethlehem, PA 18017 (e-mail: robert.langan@sluhn.org). Reprints are not available from the authors.

Author disclosure: No relevant financial affiliations.

REFERENCES

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2. Stabler SP. Clinical practice. Vitamin B12 deficiency. N Engl J Med. 2013;368(2):149–160.

3. Brown DL, Oh R. Vitamin B12 deficiency. Am Fam Physician. 2003;67(5):979–986.

4. Langan RC, Zawistoski KJ. Update on vitamin B12 deficiency. Am Fam Physician. 2011;83(12):1425–1430.

5. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Guideline summary: cobalamin (vitamin B12) deficiency—investigation and management. January 1, 2012. https://www.guideline.gov/summaries/summary/38881. Accessed October 13, 2016.

6. Dali-Youcef N, Andrès E. An update on cobalamin deficiency in adults. QJM. 2009;102(1):17–28.

7. Toh BH, van Driel IR, Gleeson PA. Pernicious anemia. N Engl J Med. 1997;337(20):1441–1448.

8. de Jager J, Kooy A, Lehert P, et al. Long term treatment with metformin in patients with type 2 diabetes and risk of vitamin B12 deficiency: randomised placebo controlled trial. BMJ. 2010;340c2181.

9. Lam JR, Schneider JL, Zhao W, Corley DA. Proton pump inhibitor and histamine 2 receptor antagonist use and vitamin B12 deficiency. JAMA. 2013;310(22):2435–2442.

10. Derin S, Koseoglu S, Sahin C, Sahan M. Effect of vitamin B12 deficiency on olfactory function. Int Forum Allergy Rhinol. 2016;6(10):1051–1055.

11. Carmel R. Current concepts in cobalamin deficiency. Annu Rev Med. 2000;51357–375.

12. Reynolds E. Vitamin B12, folic acid, and the nervous system. Lancet Neurol. 2006;5(11):949–960.

13. Molloy AM, Kirke PN, Troendle JF, et al. Maternal vitamin B12 status and risk of neural tube defects in a population with high neural tube defect prevalence and no folic acid fortification. Pediatrics. 2009;123(3):917–923.

14. Dror DK, Allen LH. Effect of vitamin B12 deficiency on neurodevelopment in infants: current knowledge and possible mechanisms. Nutr Rev. 2008;66(5):250–255.

15. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Neurologic impairment in children associated with maternal dietary deficiency of cobalamin—Georgia, 2001. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2003;52(4):61–64.

16. Hay G, Johnston C, Whitelaw A, Trygg K, Refsum H. Folate and cobalamin status in relation to breastfeeding and weaning in healthy infants. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008;88(1):105–114.

17. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. A-Z topic guide. http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstopics.htm#AZ. Accessed May 24, 2016.

18. Devalia V, Hamilton MS, Molloy AM; British Committee for Standards in Haematology. Guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of cobalamin and folate disorders. Br J Haematol. 2014;166(4):496–513.

19. Carmel R, Green R, Rosenblatt DS, Watkins D. Update on cobalamin, folate, and homocysteine. Hematology Am Soc Hematol Educ Program. 200362–81.

20. Kaferle J, Strzoda CE. Evaluation of macrocytosis. Am Fam Physician. 2009;79(3):203–208.

21. Stabler SP, Allen RH. Megaloblastic anemias. In: Cecil RL, Goldman L, Ausiello DA, eds. Cecil Textbook of Medicine. 22nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders; 2004:1050–1057.

22. Arendt JF, Nexo E. Cobalamin related parameters and disease patterns in patients with increased serum cobalamin levels. PLoS One. 2012;7(9):e45979.

23. Andrès E, Serraj K, Zhu J, Vermorken AJ. The pathophysiology of elevated vitamin B12 in clinical practice. QJM. 2013;106(6):505–515.

24. Oberley MJ, Yang DT. Laboratory testing for cobalamin deficiency in megaloblastic anemia. Am J Hematol. 2013;88(6):522–526.

25. Toh BH. Pathophysiology and laboratory diagnosis of pernicious anemia. Immunol Res. 2017;65(1):326–330.

26. Moridani M, Ben-Poorat S. Laboratory investigation of vitamin B12 deficiency. Lab Med. 2006;37(3):166–174.

27. Carmel R. How I treat cobalamin (vitamin B12) deficiency. Blood. 2008;112(16):2214–2221.

28. Vidal-Alaball J, Butler CC, Cannings-John R, et al. Oral vitamin B12 versus intramuscular vitamin B12 for vitamin B12 deficiency. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2005(3):CD004655.

29. Kuzminski AM, Del Giacco EJ, Allen RH, Stabler SP, Lindenbaum J. Effective treatment of cobalamin deficiency with oral cobalamin. Blood. 1998;92(4):1191–1198.

30. Institute of Medicine. Dietary Reference Intakes for Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Vitamin B12, Pantothenic Acid, Biotin, and Choline. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; 1998.

31. Mechanick JI, Youdim A, Jones DB, et al. Clinical practice guidelines for the perioperative nutritional, metabolic, and nonsurgical support of the bariatric surgery patient—2013 update: cosponsored by American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, the Obesity Society, and American Society for Metabolic & Bariatric Surgery. Surg Obes Relat Dis. 2013;9(2):159–191.

32. Yang HT, Lee M, Hong KS, Ovbiagele B, Saver JL. Efficacy of folic acid supplementation in cardiovascular disease prevention: an updated meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Eur J Intern Med. 2012;23(8):745–754.

33. Nachum-Biala Y, Troen AM. B-vitamins for neuroprotection: narrowing the evidence gap. Biofactors. 2012;38(2):145–150.

 

 

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