Iron: Some Men And Some Postmenopausal Women Need Supplemental Iron  

There is much misunderstanding about the need to take a dietary supplement that contains iron with some people thinking that men and senior women should avoid iron supplementation because iron is one of the nutrients that has some potential for toxicity. Men and senior women are different than menstruating women, who lose iron though blood loss during monthly menstruation.

A new study shows why it is a good idea to recommend that senior women re-consider whether to take a dietary supplement that contains iron. I suggest that many men should also re-consider this issue.

PENN STATE UNIVERSITY STUDY
A study by Ahluwalia of Penn State University was independently sponsored and published in a peer-reviewed medical journal, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The study text tells us that 35 of 72 well-nourished women in the study (48 percent) who were 60 years old and older were shown to have iron deficiencies, which can cause health problems from breathlessness and fatigue to frequent infections, reduced IQ and problems concentrating.

The women who were deficient in iron had as much as 50 percent less production of immune cells, called T-cells, that fight invading germs.

The study leader, Namanjeet Ahluwalia, associate professor of nutrition, said, "Iron deficiency in our study was associated with impairments of two measures of immunity at levels that may render older adults more vulnerable to infections."

While there is a misguided notion that most people should not supplement with iron, iron deficiency is the number one nutrient deficiency in old age.

While high levels of iron are associated with increased risk of some cancers, low iron stores can increase DNA breakage that might also result in increased risk of cancers.

IRON DEFICIENCY EQUALS MORE HEART ATTACKS One study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that while high body stores of iron were not associated with death from heart attacks, low iron stores were associated with more deaths from heart attacks. (Sempos, NEJM, 1994)

Ferritin tests measure the body's iron storage, the best, easily obtained measurement of iron in the body. As was seen in this study, iron deficiency is more common than is usually thought.

I recommend that if a person has questions about their need for iron they should get a ferritin blood test once a year, available with your doctor's prescription.

The normal scale for ferritin is 12 to 300 ng/mL for men and 12 to 150 ng/mL for women. (Measurements below 40 ng/mL indicate that there's not enough iron. A measurement of 70 ng/mL has been noted as being more optimal.)

While this study looked at normal, well-fed American senior women, senior men often have similar diets. Younger men and women should also consider this study carefully when making the choice of whether to take multivitamins with iron or iron-free.

Last year, I started taking an iron-free multivitamin to test myself and see if I needed to take iron. Within one year my blood tests showed that my ferritin (stored iron) measured below the bottom of the normal scale for the first time in my adult life. I resumed taking a multivitamin with iron, and in three months my next blood test showed that my ferritin was returning to the low end of the normal scale. I found that I need to take supplemental iron.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR TO TEST BLOOD FERRITIN
Make wise choices by asking for the blood tests that tell you exactly what is happening in your own body, as no two people are exactly alike. Ask your doctor for a ferritin test when you get your yearly health screening.

Reference: Ahluwalia N, and associates. Immune function is impaired in iron-deficient, homebound, older women. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2004 Mar;79(3):516-21.

   

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