OBJECTIVES:To determine the clinical significance of subnormal serum vitamin B12 concentration in older people by comparing the hematological, neurological, and biochemical findings in patients with subnormal serum B12 with a control group with normal B12 levels. DESIGN:Clinical and laboratory assessment of hospital patients selected to represent a wide range of serum B12 levels. SETTING:Patients in the medical wards of two hospitals, one a general hospital and the other a geriatric hospital. PARTICIPANTS:Ninety-four older patients, 43 with subnormal (< 150 pmol/L) and 51 with normal serum B12 concentrations. MEASUREMENTS:Mini-Mental State Examination, neurological score, full blood examination, mean neutrophil lobe count; serum B12, holotranscobalamin II, total homocysteine, folate, creatinine and gastrin red folate; parietal cell antibodies, intrinsic factor antibodies. RESULTS:Of all the measurements, only mean neutrophil lobe count and mean serum total homocysteine were significantly different in the low serum B12 compared with the control group. There was a significant correlation between serum B12 and homocysteine levels. Eighty-eight percent of patients in the test group compared with 76% in the control group showed at least one of the following; elevated serum total homocysteine, neutrophil hypersegmentation, or elevated MCV. This overlap was much reduced when patients with borderline values for serum B12 (150-250 pmol/L) were included in the low B12 group. Most of the older subjects had little or no B12 on transcobalamin II, irrespective of the serum B12 level. CONCLUSION:Almost 90% of older patients with serum B12 < 150 pmol/L show evidence of tissue vitamin B12 deficiency. Deficiency becomes manifest in older patients at relatively higher concentrations of serum B12 than in younger subjects, possibly because of lower levels of holotranscobalamin II in the older patients.