From Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and strokes—the aging brain is especially vulnerable to a host of neurological diseases. And while there are many contributing factors to cognitive decline, there’s one that’s often overlooked: iron deficiency.
The Importance of Iron for the Brain
Iron is an essential mineral that our bodies need to survive. Over 70% of the iron in our body is found in hemoglobin, which is responsible for carrying oxygen in our blood. But did you know that iron also plays a vital role in brain function?
Let us take a look at three ways iron is important for brain health:
Iron helps carry oxygen to the brain
Oxygen is essential for the proper functioning of all cells in the body, including brain cells. Because iron is responsible for carrying oxygen in the blood, an iron deficiency can lead to a lack of oxygen reaching the brain. This can lead to a host of problems, including cognitive impairment, poor brain development in children, and even death.
Iron is necessary for the production of neurotransmitters
Neurotransmitters are chemicals that help relay messages between nerve cells in the brain. Some of the most important neurotransmitters for cognitive function, including dopamine and serotonin, require iron to be produced.
Iron is involved in the production of myelin
Myelin is a substance that surrounds and protects nerve cells in the brain. It helps to insulate the electrical impulses that travel between neurons and ensures that those impulses are transmitted smoothly and efficiently. A lack of iron can lead to a decrease in myelin production, which can impair cognitive function.
Iron Deficiency in Seniors
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), around 10% of people over the age of 65 are iron deficient. This is largely due to the fact that as we age, we become more susceptible to gastrointestinal bleeding—a common cause of iron loss.
Other causes of iron deficiency in seniors include:
As we age, our diets often become less varied and nutritious. This can lead to deficiencies in many vitamins and minerals, including iron.
With age, our digestive system becomes less efficient at extracting nutrients from food. This includes iron.
Chronic illnesses like Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and ulcerative colitis can all lead to iron deficiency.
Certain medications—including antacids, blood thinners, and certain cancer treatments—can also lead to iron deficiency.
If you’re over the age of 65 and think you may be iron deficient, it’s important to talk to your doctor. They can order a simple blood test to check your iron levels. If you are deficient, they will work with you to develop a treatment plan. This may include changes to your diet, iron supplements, or even intravenous iron therapy.
What Can You Do to Prevent Iron Deficiency?
We’ve talked about some of the reasons why seniors are at risk for iron deficiency. But what can you do to prevent it?
Here are some tips:
Eat a Healthy Diet
A diet rich in lean meats, dark leafy greens, beans, and fortified cereals is a great way to ensure you’re getting enough iron. This well-balanced diet will also provide many other important nutrients that are essential for brain health.
Don’t Skip Meals
Skipping meals can lead to iron deficiency. If you’re not able to cook for yourself, there are many meal delivery services that can help you get the nutrients you need.
Talk to Your Doctor
If you’re over the age of 65, be sure to talk to your doctor about your risk for iron deficiency. They can order a simple blood test to check your levels and develop a treatment plan if needed.
The Bottom Line
Iron deficiency is a common problem in seniors, but it’s one that’s often overlooked. If you think you or a loved one may be at risk, be sure to talk to your doctor. Iron supplements can be dangerous if taken in excess, so it’s important to get guidance from a healthcare professional before beginning any supplementation regimen. With early diagnosis and treatment, you can help protect your or your loved one’s cognitive health.