A 2013 clinical trial at the University of California-San Francisco found that people who were anemic at the start of the 11-year study ran a 40% higher risk of developing dementia than those who were not anemic.
“These two common, age-related conditions seem to be connected in a way we had not appreciated,” said Kristine Yaffe, a professor of psychiatry, neurology and epidemiology at UCSF, who led the study.
“It makes sense that depriving the brain of oxygen would cause memory and other problems.”
The study was the first trial to link dementia with anemia. In the past, researchers suggested a link between anemia and problems on thinking tests.
About 25% of people over the age of 65 are anemic and have decreased red blood cells and hemoglobin counts. When this occurs, the body and brain get less oxygen.
Anemia has a variety of causes, including iron deficiencies, undetected internal bleeding, comorbid diseases or as a side effect of medications. Anemia is also associated with Restless Legs Syndrome, and can make heart conditions worse. Nutritional supplements such as Prohemia can be used to support the individual with anemia.
“It makes sense that depriving the brain of oxygen would cause memory and other problems,” said Rachel Whitmer, senior scientist at Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, CA. “If this is happening in a chronic state, it could be that you’re having this small hit to the brain over time, which can set you up to be more susceptible" to dementia, she said.
This study suggests that anemia can be a precursor to dementia. But some dementias like Alzheimer’s can take years to develop, so it’s still not clear which condition comes first, according to Whitmer.
Although it is not yet clear whether treating the anemia would reduce the risk of dementia and other health problems, the study seems to suggest it it would. Physicians agree it is best to find the cause of anemia and work with the patient to find the best solutions.