Anemia—a shortage of oxygen-carrying red blood cells—is fairly common in older adults, affecting up to 24% of people age 65 and older. Meanwhile, Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, affects 15% of people age 65 to 74 and 44% of people age 75 to 84. And now studies have shown a link between the two disorders, and that’s good news. Looking out for and addressing one (anemia) may have a strong impact on avoiding the other (dementia).
In one small study, the risk of dementia doubled within three years of an anemia diagnosis and, in another, anemia was associated with a 60% increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease within 3.3 years. But while small studies are all well and fine to get a glimpse into new ways of seeing health problems, larger studies are needed to really make a strong case. And that’s what an international team of researchers has done.
The team followed 2,552 people, age 70 to 79, who participated in an 11-year study called Health, Aging and Body Composition. Over the course of the study period, all of the participants were given memory tests to check for signs of dementia and blood tests for anemia. None of them had dementia at the start of the study, and 15% of them had anemia. By the end of the study, 18% of participants had Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. When the researchers compared rates of dementia between people who had or didn’t have anemia, they discovered that having anemia was associated with a 41% higher risk for Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.
WHAT TO DO
How anemia is linked to dementia is not completely understood. Possible factors include simply being in poor health, not getting enough oxygen to the brain (those red blood cells!) or having an iron or vitamin B-12 deficiency. Whatever the connection, in case it is anemia that is actually causing dementia, you’ll want to do whatever you can to recognize and treat the symptoms of anemia—and, of course, prevent anemia from ever happening in the first place.
Signs of anemia can be subtle at first and include fatigue, weakness, pale skin, fast or irregular heartbeat, trouble breathing, chest pain, trouble with memory and concentration, cold hands and feet and headache. So if you’ve been feeling fatigued and don’t know why or have other symptoms just mentioned, make an appointment with your doctor, who will order a blood test to check for anemia.
If anemia is found, additional tests will be done to find the exact cause, and the results will determine treatment.
Although rare or hereditary forms of anemia require blood transfusions, others are corrected by treating the underlying cause, whether it be loss of blood from a bleeding ulcer or complications from an infection or a medication side effect. Fortunately, the most common form of anemia—that caused by an iron or B-12 deficiency —is managed with good nutrition and vitamin and mineral supplements. It might be a simple correction that lets you avoid a horrific outcome.
Since prevention is best, keep your diet rich in iron, folate, vitamin B-12, and vitamin C (which is essential for iron absorption). Foods that will give you the iron you need include red meat, beans, dried fruit, and green leafy vegetables, such as spinach. Besides vitamin C, citrus fruits provide folate. Other good sources of folate include green leafy veggies, beans and bananas. As for vitamin B-12, rely on salmon, shellfish, beef and dairy. And if you are vegan or vegetarian (or have a large B-12 deficiency), you likely already know that you need to get B-12 from supplementation.