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Iron Poor Blood—It’s Anemia, and You Should Take it Seriously

separator You might be of the mindset that having anemia is normal at your age. The Geritol commercials years ago made us all think that everybody “of a certain age” had “iron poor blood,” right? But like so many conditions that commonly affect elders, anemia should be taken seriously—and treated. Your quality of life can improve greatly once your blood counts get back to normal. Additionally, if you’re recovering from another illness, having anemia can slow down your recovery.

What are the symptoms of anemia?
The list below shows you the symptoms of anemia. It’s important to realize that the symptoms can be mild, and many people dismiss them as so-called “normal signs of aging.”

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Irritability
  • Disinterest in activities
  • Dizziness
  • Pale skin

What’s the cause?
Anemia is the most common blood disorder in this country. At least 4 million people have it, but experts believe that that is an underestimate. When you’re anemic, you have a shortage of healthy red blood cells. It’s the red blood cells that carry oxygen to the body’s tissues and remove carbon dioxide from the body. There’s a protein on red blood cells called hemoglobin. When hemoglobin is low, the red cells don’t function as well they should.

What causes anemia?
Insufficient nutrition:
You need iron to produce hemoglobin, but it can be difficult to consume enough iron from your diet. In fact, inadequate nutrition is the most common cause of anemia. Foods that contain iron include:

  • Meat and poultry, organ meats in particular (these are the best sources)
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Dried fruits
  • Dried bean and peas
  • Enriched and whole grain cereals and bread

Additionally, you need to get plenty of vitamin C, because that helps your body absorb the iron you do manage to take in. And you need B vitamins as well, including folic acid.

It’s a good idea to talk to your doctor or other healthcare provider, such as a nutritionist or dietitian, about your iron consumption and whether you should take a supplement that contains iron.

Be sure to read the iron-rich recipe in this issue of the magazine—Broiled Lamb Chops on Bean Stew. 

Certain illnesses: There are a lot of health conditions that can actually be the cause of anemia:

  • Kidney disease
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • AIDS
  • Liver disease
  • Cancer
  • Hereditary anemias, such as sickle cell and thalassemia
  • Ulcers, polyps and hemorrhoids, which can cause chronic blood loss

Studies have shown that patients who have these conditions have a higher mortality rate when anemia is present and is not treated. Kidney dialysis patients who were anemic at the start of one study had double the risk of death as dialysis patients who were not anemic. But as soon as the anemia was treated, the death rate for both groups was the same. People who have heart attacks and congestive heart failure have higher survival rates when their anemia is addressed. Cancer patients, as well, have a higher survival rate if they are not anemic.

Consider getting tested for anemia
If a blood test for anemia isn’t part of your regular healthcare screenings, you might want to talk to your doctor about being tested for it. Especially if you have any of the chronic conditions listed above, or if you’ve been experiencing any of the symptoms listed above. Simply getting treated for anemia can greatly improve your quality of life and decrease your chances of physical decline.

American Journal of Medicine, August 2003; Archives of Internal Medicine, 23 June 2003; National Institute on Aging; New York Times, “Tired Blood Warming: Ignore It at Your Peril,” 23 September 2003.
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