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Anemia and Dementia Could Be Linked

July 31, 2013

Anemia occurs when the body does not get enough iron for healthy hemoglobin production. A new study by the University of California – San Francisco now suggests that anemia may increase the risk of dementia.

"Anemia is common in the elderly, and occurs in up to 23 percent of adults ages 65 and older," said senior author Kristine Yaffe, a UCSF professor of psychiatry, neurology and epidemiology, based at the San Francisco Veteran Affairs Medical Center. "The condition has also been linked in studies to an increased risk of early death."

The study was conducted over a period of 11 years, in which 2,552 adults between the ages of 70 and 79 were tested for anemia, and also underwent memory and thinking tests. Of those, 393 had anemia at the start of the study. At the end of the study, 445 participants (18 percent) developed dementia.

The research found that people who had anemia at the start of the study had a nearly 41 percent higher risk of developing dementia. The link remained after factoring in age, race, sex and education. The association continued to be significant after adjusting for potential confounders, including co-morbidities and other markers of red cell health.

The researchers did not investigate the type of anemia associated with the increased risk of dementia, though iron deficiency is one major type.

"There are several explanations for why anemia may be linked to dementia," Yaffe said. "For example, anemia may be a marker for poor health in general, or low oxygen levels resulting from anemia may play a role in the connection. Reductions in oxygen to the brain have been shown to reduce memory and thinking abilities, and may contribute to damage to neurons."

However, more research is needed on the matter, and the best we can do for ourselves is to follow a balanced diet.

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute lists these sources as best for iron content:

  • Meat – especially red meat (such as beef or liver)
  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Pork
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Spinach and other dark green leafy vegetables
  • Tofu
  • Peas, lentils, beans, soybeans, chickpeas
  • Dried fruits such as prunes, raisins and apricots
  • Prune juice
  • Iron-fortified cereals and breads