Researchers have discovered that low iron levels in blood and anemia could be linked to increased risks for dementia, according to a study published in the journal Neurology.

Anemia occurs when the number of red blood cells or concentrations of hemoglobin, a protein inside red blood cells, are low.

Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco and the American Academy of Neurology analyzed 2,552 adults between the ages of 70 and 79 who were participating in a Health, Aging and Body Composition study.

The study, which was carried out over an 11-year period, required the adults to participate in memory and thinking tests during this time.

At the beginning of the study, all patients were free of dementia. At the start of the research, 393 were diagnosed with anemia and 445 had developed it by the end of the study.

The results were that the patients with anemia had a higher risk of developing dementia compared with those who were not anemic. Anemia was associated with a 41% higher chance of dementia. The association persisted even after the researchers took other factors into account, such as age, sex, race and education.

Kristin Yaffe, a study author from University of California, San Francisco, says:

There are several explanations for why anemia may be linked to dementia. 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.”

More than 3 million people in the US have anemia. Iron deficiency anemia (IDA) is the most common form. It occurs when the body does not get enough iron for healthy hemoglobin production.

Eating foods high in iron can help prevent IDA. The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute advice on anemia (resource no longer available at lists these sources as best for iron content:

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Will eating more iron-rich food such as red meat keep this smiling couple free of dementia?
  • Meat – especially red meat (such as beef or liver)
  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Pork
  • Fish
  • Shellfish.

The institute also lists the following among non-meat foods that are good sources of iron:

  • Spinach and other dark green leafy vegetables
  • Tofu
  • Peas; lentils; white, red, and baked beans; soybeans; and chickpeas
  • Dried fruits, such as prunes, raisins, and apricots
  • Prune juice
  • Iron-fortified cereals and breads.

Commenting on the study, Dr. Doug Brown of the Alzheimer’s Society, says that although this research is interesting, we shouldn’t assume that anemia is a direct cause of dementia. He says:

Maybe our parents were right to tell us that we should eat more spinach. This interesting research suggests that lower iron levels may have a link with cognitive health later on in life.

However, more research is needed and we shouldn’t make the jump to claim that anemia causes dementia. The changes may be linked to disrupted oxygen flow to the brain or, indeed, poor health overall.”

In conclusion, Dr. Doug Brown says that “the best way to reduce your risk of dementia is to lead a healthy lifestyle.”

“Enjoy a balanced Mediterranean diet rich in fruit and vegetables, oily fish and even the occasional glass of red wine, take regular exercise and don’t smoke,” he says.