Cognitive impairment amongst some older Australians could be tied to low vitamin C levels, new research has found.

The study, led by Associate Professor Yogesh Sharma from Flinders University, looked at 160 patients aged over 75 who were admitted to the Flinders Medical Centre in Adelaide.

The research team assessed their cognitive function and vitamin C levels and found that more than half of the patients (56.9 per cent) had cognitive impairment.

Professor Campbell Thompson

This can result in a person having trouble remembering things, concentrating or making decisions. 

Cognitive status was determined by a Mini Mental State Examination and the Clock-Drawing Test.

The study also found that 42 of the patients (26.3 per cent) were vitamin C deficient with a level below 11 micromoles per litre, which is when scurvy can develop.

“I was stunned that a quarter of the admissions to this unit were in the bottom two levels of scurvy,” Co-author Professor Campbell Thompson from the University of Adelaide told Community Care Review.  

“Scurvy was something that affected sailors in the 17th and 18th centuries and not people living at home in suburban Adelaide.”

Monitoring diet

A poor diet could be causing the vitamin C deficiency in older adults, according to Professor Thompson.

He says providers can help older Australians by monitoring their diets.

“If they can pay attention to the nutrition of their clientele and encourage those who have diets that are low in fresh fruit and veggies to be taking a multivitamin supplement, I think that should improve the quality of their life moving forward.

“Vitamin C is very cheap, it’s not toxic and perhaps vitamin supplements would go a long way to improving quality of life.”

Reversing impairment with vitamin C

The research authors said the findings are preliminary as it included only older inpatients receiving rehabilitation and may not be applicable to the general older population.

The next stage of the research will be testing to see if these effects are reversible.  

“We should be doing more research to see if supplementing people with vitamin C actually removes some of the problems with cognition,” Professor Thompson said.

“We know it fixes wounds and gums, it fixes bruising etc but is the cognitive deficit permanent or can it be reversed?”

The team is currently looking at cognitive tests to determine which cognitive functions are vulnerable to vitamin C deficiency.

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