The readily available vitamin thiamin may help brain function in older adults who have lost their appetite, don’t care about the quality of their diets or forget to eat. Poor nutritional habits put those seniors at risk for two neurological disorders more commonly associated with alcoholism: Wernickes encephalopathy and Korsakoffs Syndrome.

The diseases can be fatal. Wernickes causes memory impairment, confusion, vision disturbances, muscle weakness and an unsteady gait. Treatment includes thiamin replacement. Without the vitamin, memory loss can become permanent. This amnesia marks Korsakoffs, which is usually considered incurable.

Australian researcher Dr. Clive Harper at the University of Sydney says doctors often misdiagnose the diseases.

Researcher Edith V. Sullivan, Ph.D., at the Stanford University School of Medicine says the results of the study indicate the importance of nutritional factors in brain condition and cognitive well-being. Sensitive muscle and nerve tissue, including the brain, start to deteriorate without sufficient vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.

In the United States and other countries, food manufacturers often add thiamin to bread flour. Japan enriches its rice. The water-soluble B vitamin is found naturally in organ meats and whole-grain breads, cereals and pastas.

Although deficiencies are rare, the possibility should be investigated in people experiencing memory loss or dementia.