Should Older Adults Take Iron Supplements? Revisiting a Controversy

One of the discomfiting contradictions of living in the Information Age is the realization that a surplus of information doesn’t necessarily lead you closer to the truth. We’re constantly bombarded by contradictory sets of facts from every corner of the internet, making it almost impossible to know what is right. Except for maybe politics, this is probably most true in personal health.

Should Older Adults Take Iron SupplementsOne of the discomfiting contradictions of living in the Information Age is the realization that a surplus of information doesn’t necessarily lead you closer to the truth. We’re constantly bombarded by contradictory sets of facts from every corner of the internet, making it almost impossible to know what is right. Except for maybe politics, this is probably most true in personal health.
Do you have a glass of red wine every night? That’s very good…unless, of course, it is bad. What about dark chocolate? Eating that is very bad for you, unless, of course, it is good. Here’s a supplement that doctors Don’t Want You To Know About, which, in the amped-up carnival barker argot of internet scams, is a good thing.

One of the areas of contention is iron supplements for older adults. Iron is an important mineral, and iron deficiencies can lead to serious health issues. For that reason, iron supplements are a huge seller and are often pushed toward older adults with the idea that they can prevent anemia and help boost energy.
The problem is that having a surplus of iron is also dangerous, and most older adults get the iron they need from diet alone. So there are many cases where taking iron supplements can actually be bad for your health. In fact, most older adults probably shouldn’t be taking iron supplements at all.
Before we get into more details, we’ll sum up the Golden Rule of IOA health blogs: talk to your doctor. If you believe you have an iron deficiency, find out! Find out if supplements are right for you. Find out if they are dangerous.
Iron deficiency is a real thing. But so is iron surplus. Monitoring your health, talking to your doctor, and taking professional advice is the best way to make sure you don’t suffer from either.

How Much Iron Do I Need?

The first question is: why do we need iron? At the most basic level, iron contributes to the production of red blood cells, which, not to put too fine a medical point to it, are good. When your body is unable to produce the required amount of red blood cells, you could face anemia.
Obviously, not everyone needs the same amount of iron. Oddly, children, especially infants, need a lot of iron, even more than adults. The first year of life and the years between 14 and 18 are important years for both men and women.
The need for iron changes as we age, but once we pass puberty, it remains consistent for most of our adult lives. Men between the ages of 19 and 50 require 8mg of iron a day, with women in that age (prime childbearing years) requiring 18mg. These numbers go up during pregnancy and lactation.
After roughly 50, a man’s requirement stays the same, but a woman’s dramatically drops. After menopause, a woman also requires only as much iron as men do—just 8mg a day.

What Happens If I Get Too Much Iron?

We all know that anemia is bad, of course. But what is the issue with getting too much iron? Why would that be a bad thing?
It has to do with how iron is processed in the body. It is absorbed as necessary as the body cycles through its oxygen-rich red blood cells. While this is a perpetual process, it involves only a finite number of cells. So when there is more iron than actually required, it has to be stored elsewhere, and it generally goes toward the organs.
This isn’t good. Too much iron can be toxic and may damage the liver, the heart, and the pancreas. An excess of iron can also be bad for your joints, leading to arthritis and chronic pain.
Older adults who have unusually high levels of iron are also at increased risk for diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and various types of cancer. There have also been correlations found between excess iron and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. It is important to note that while there is a correlation, there has not been any direct causation.

Finding the Right Balance

All this being said, we don’t want to give the impression that everyone has enough iron. Indeed, a growing body of research indicates that older adults might be more at risk anemia than previously thought. A 2014 study in the journal Mechanisms of Aging and Development, for example, showed that 10% of adults over 65 were anemic, a number that jumps to 20% for those over 85. Both of these numbers are even higher for those in assisted living homes.
The researchers pointed out that older adults with anemia were more likely to suffer from mechanical performance issues and were at an increased risk of falling. It is a real problem.
They blamed two major culprits: inflammation (which, among other things, makes it more difficult for the body to absorb iron) and poor diet. Inflammation can be reduced through a number of mechanisms, including anti-inflammatory drugs, supplements, and even drinking a cup of coffee. Simultaneously, a more iron-rich diet can be introduced, especially if you are living at home and can control your own diet.
What you want the most are foods that are high in iron that is easy to absorb. This includes:

  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Eggs
  • Tuna
  • Salmon
  • Shrimp

There are also foods that contain a lot of iron but aren’t as easy to absorb. These include:

  • Tofu
  • Brown rice
  • Broccoli
  • Beans
  • Spinach

A good trick is to also eat foods that are rich in Vitamin C, which helps you absorb iron better. This includes most fruits and vegetables.
So, should older adults take iron supplements? The answer is: probably not. While there is no exact iron limit for everyone, there are real dangers in taking too much. Diet is, most of the time, the best way to regulate and moderate your iron intake.
However, there may be cases where an older adult will need to take an iron supplement. Everyone is different. That’s why you should talk to your doctor if you are exhibiting symptoms of anemia. She or he will be able to tell you what is right for you.
Even in confusing times, that’s what it comes down to: seeking out help when you need it and listening to the people who know you best. Listen to your body. If it has signs of too much or too little iron, do something. You know what you need to do to live your happiest, fullest life. You know you need to listen to yourself and your doctors.
That’s information you can truly use.
At Institute on Aging, our broad range of programs and services help older adults stay healthy and engaged through the journey of aging. Contact us today to learn more.

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