THE DETAILS: For the study, which was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 3,500 adults aged 65 and older filled out food-frequency questionnaires as part of the Chicago Health and Aging project. They also answered questions about depressive symptoms; those with four or more symptoms on a 10-item list were considered "depressed" for the purposes of the study. After 12 years of follow up, the participants who had higher intakes of vitamins B6 and B12, both from food and from supplements, had a lower incidence of depression. And, the authors found, for every 10 additional milligrams of vitamin B6 and of vitamin B12 the participants took in, they experienced a 2 percent decrease in their odds of developing depressive symptoms each year of the study.
WHAT IT MEANS: Keeping your B vitamin intake up could ward off depression as you age. And this may be a case where your diet could use some help from supplements. Although vitamin B6 in both food and supplement form seems to ward off depression, vitamin B12 is less bioavailable, which means the body has a harder time absorbing it from food, especially in older adults, says Kimberly A. Skarupski, PhD, MPH, associate professor of nutrition and nutritional epidemiology at Rush University and one of the lead authors. But when you combine food sources of B vitamins with the added boost of supplements, the positive effects on depression are more pronounced, she notes. It's difficult to determine from these results whether a higher B vitamin intake was simply an indication of a healthier diet, which also protects against depression. But the evidence suggests that adding B vitamin supplements to your daily routine will keep you happier in the long run.
Here are a few ways to sneak some added B into your day:
• Get by with a little help from supplements. Because this study was simply an observational study, and not a controlled experiment, it's difficult to say how much of the B vitamins will yield the greatest benefits. Start out with a B-complex vitamin that contains both B6 and B12, or a multivitamin supplement that contains both.
• Keep meat on the menu—and/or bananas. Some of the best and most reliable sources for B vitamins are animal products. Meat, eggs, milk, cheese, and fish are the best food sources of B12; just don't overindulge. Health problems from diets with an excess of animal fats—think lung cancer, blindness, and early death—are pretty depressing in their own right. And don't discount vegetarian alternatives. Bananas, fortified breads and cereals, and avocados are all rich in B6. If you're wondering how to put them all together, try these recipes that are rich in B vitamins.
• Go easy on the margaritas. Alcohol consumption can drain you of B vitamins, a fact that may have led to the common frat-house hangover cure of the taking a megadose of B-complex supplements. Stick with one glass of wine or one beer per day (two if you're a man) to get the heart benefits of alcohol without depleting your B-vitamin stores.